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Isle Royale

Isle Royale – A Great Lakes young adult historical thriller

Shipwrecks, gangsters, and the mother of all storms. Living in a lighthouse can be murder.

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The year is 1924. The place: Isle Royale, a remote island on Lake Superior. Clarence MacDougal, keeper of Wolf Point Lighthouse, stands ready to guide sailors through treacherous waters.

One storm-tossed night, French-Canadian bootleggers arrive. The gang’s leader is Sean LeBeck, a former lover of Collene MacDougal—the lightkeeper’s wife. LeBeck is determined to rescue Collene from her dreary life and rekindle their old passion, even if it means taking her off the island by force.

The lightkeeper’s son, Ian, escapes during the storm, only to stumble upon a hidden cove, home of the last remaining members of the Coast Guard cutter Chippewa. A dark secret forced the crew to banish themselves in shame. Given one last chance at redemption, the ancient mariners set out on stormy Lake Superior in a desperate attempt to save the day.

* * * * * * * * * * * reviews:

Unique Historical Adventure  5-stars

“A rip-roaring historical adventure set in the delightfully unusual setting of Lake Superior’s Isle Royale. Hamilton’s love for the locale comes shining through; Lake Superior at times seems one of the characters in the drama. A carefully-researched Great War flashback is almost a novella within a novel, while providing crucial motivation for the story.”

Non-stop excitement + lots of atmosphere  5-stars, by author Kathleen Valentine

“I loved this book! I am particularly fond of books with Great Lakes backgrounds so this was an extra treat. Isle Royale is an island in Lake Superior and the book is just full of wonderful information on the dangers and beauties there. … The book is a fun, fast, read full of phantoms, mysteries, old pirates and young adventure with a delicious feel for life on a Great Lake island and the life of lightkeepers. As I was reading the book it reminded me of my youth and some of the wonderful Disney-type adventure stories. Suitable for Young Adults but lots of fun for grown-ups, too.”

A Fun Read  5-stars
I picked up “Isle Royale” because I enjoy historical fiction, and I sure wasn’t disappointed. The story is about how a lighthouse on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, and the two families who live there and operate it. Trouble comes when a ruthless gang invades the island. The leader of the gang, who was driven mad in World War I, comes back seeking the woman he loved, now the wife of the lighthouse keeper. Two teenagers have to save the day. Very picturesque language, lots of action and drama, and historically accurate.

A Well-Spun Yarn 4-stars

The story is well paced and full of action, with many surprising twists and turns to the plot. I was astonished when I reached the end to read in the “back matter” of the Kindle edition that this novel was intended for a “young adult” audience. I think it will please readers of any age looking for an adventurous thriller. John Hamilton obviously knows the history, culture, climate, and dangers of Lake Superior very well. He uses that knowledge to best advantage, as the lake becomes almost another character in the book. It certainly added to my limited store of knowledge about what happens on that vast body of water when the “gales of November” show up!


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By John Hamilton


The Storm


And the coming wind did roar more loud,

And the sails did sigh like sedge;

And the rain poured down from one black cloud;

The Moon was at its edge.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

One black November night off Minnesota’s rocky North Shore, a wintry nor’easter threw its icy shoulders onto Lake Superior. The Lady, as wary sailors called the lake, thrashed and howled against the storm that raged upon her surface. Churning water sprang into mountains of foam and death. Waves crashed down on some unseen shore, a symphony of booms, cracks, and hollow echoes lurking behind veils of black-velvet night. Sheets of rain poured from malevolent clouds, and every few seconds lightning set the sky ablaze like fiery stage curtains from hell.

Through the tempest a ship appeared, rushing headlong into the wind. She was a sidepaddle steamer, her single smokestack puffing away, billowing soot into the already bleak night. The ship measured two hundred feet from stem to stern. She could hold her own against any storm the inland sea unleashed, but on this night her wooden hull groaned with every slap of every wave. The ship’s paddle wheels dug in, propelling her forward through the surge. Stars and stripes fluttered at the stern, wind ripping the flag to shreds.

A riot of sound tore through the air—thunder boomed overhead, wind howled, waves crashed and hissed against the ship’s hull. Then, another noise: the screaming of men, women, and children, as if sheer terror had risen from the water itself and lashed out against the rampaging elements.

The steamer cut bravely through the waves, advancing across the storm-tossed lake against all odds. And then, quite suddenly, she ran aground, smashing against something big, some unseen reef. The ship lurched to a halt. A groan welled up from belowdecks as wood gave way, bending and snapping. The ship lurched again, her huge paddles still churning the water, driving her higher onto the rocks, tightening the noose around her neck. Then she hung there, her bow teetering over the water, suspended and helpless.

The ship balanced on the rock a few moments more, and then a bone-crushing wave hit her side, nearly capsizing her. She lurched sickeningly, then righted herself, smashing back down into the water and drifting away from the deadly shoal.

As knee-deep water swirled on deck, a lone figure staggered toward the bridge. It was a sailor in a rain-slicked mackintosh, its edges whipping and snapping at the wind. The man made his way from the bow, feet slipping and sliding across the wooden planks. Another wave slapped down, nearly washing him overboard. He grabbed a side rail and hung on for dear life, shouting to God not to cast him into a watery grave. The water subsided, and the sailor continued his slippery trek across the deck.

Inside the bridge, another sailor wrestled with the helm. The big wooden wheel, its eight handles projecting out like spokes, jerked and twisted, trying to wrench itself free. The sailor gritted his teeth and held tight, muscled arms quivering from the strain. The man winced as hail pelted the windows. The frozen bullets hammered at the glass, threatening to shatter the thin boundary between the relative safety of the bridge and the raging maelstrom outside.

Behind the helmsman, crouched in the corner of the small room, was another sailor, sobbing, the side of his head streaked with blood.

“Olson, help me!” shouted the helmsman. But the injured man curled up tight and buried his face. “For God’s sake, pull yourself together!” More sobbing. The helmsman curled his lip in disgust. Amateur. He turned back to face the storm.

Wind lashed mercilessly at the windows, driving the hail into the glass until it cracked, thin veins creeping outward like spider webs. A wave heaved up and smashed against the panes. The helmsman flinched and jerked his hand up to protect his face, but the glass held.

Just then, the man in the mackintosh burst in through the access door. He struggled at the threshold and was nearly sucked out to sea by the wind. He finally broke free and hurled himself through the doorway, landing on the floor with a wet thud. The man gasped for breath, then quickly turned and kicked at the door, wedging it shut.

“Captain!” shouted the helmsman toward the new arrival. “I couldn’t hold her! That devil wind blew us right up the reef!”

The man staggered to his feet, mouth open, struggling for air. He tried speaking, but could only hack and cough up a lungful of water. His face was streaked with blood, which oozed from a wide gash on his forehead. His neatly trimmed beard was soaked in crimson. He ripped off his coat. Underneath, he wore the blue captain’s uniform of the United States Revenue Service, two gold bars flashing across each shoulder. But his wool pants were shredded, ripped and tattered by the wind and waves. He tossed his coat aside, his chest heaving from exertion.

“For shore!” he finally croaked. “Head for shore! There’s nothing more we can do here.”

“But…,” stuttered the shocked helmsman. “The Rowan!”

“Now, damn you!” the captain snapped, eyes blazing. “Head for shore or we’re all dead men!”

At that moment, another wave crashed against the window. The glass screeched, then gave out, shattering inward and spraying the captain and helmsman with jagged shards. With the window now open to the night air, the wind and rain howled in triumph. But over the noise of the storm came another, more horrifying sound: the screaming of women and children. From out of nowhere it came, shrieks piercing the room, rising to a fevered crescendo until it drowned out all else.

The captain reached for the wheel to help the helmsman fight against the waves, but after a moment he fell to his knees, completely exhausted now, his face twisted in agony. He clamped his fists over his ears and shut his eyes tight, twisting his body away from the open window.

The helmsman heard a noise, different from the chaos swirling around him. He turned and looked down, and to his horror saw the captain on his knees sobbing like a frightened child. The helmsman whirled and stared back out into the storm, trying to find some landward beacon. They were doomed. “God have mercy on us,” he muttered.

At the back of the bridge, the sailor huddled in the corner, who until now had remained silent, suddenly sprang up, his eyes wild with fear and torment. “The lifeboats!” he screamed, then lurched forward.

The helmsman snapped his head around. “Olson! Get back!”

But the terrified sailor was already at the door, tugging at it. With one last great effort, the door flew open. The man stumbled out and slipped on the wooden deck. Almost immediately, a tremendous wave slapped the side of the ship. The water smashed the sailor down, then grabbed him and swept him across the deck. He desperately grabbed for support, but to his shock and horror felt the side rail slip from his fingers as he was tossed out to the open sea.

When he hit the surface, the icy cold water of Superior sent shock waves through the sailor’s body. He gasped and flailed his arms, struggling to keep his head above the surface. Wave after wave slapped him back down. Soon his fingers went numb, and he lost feeling in his legs. Lightning crackled directly overhead, adding to his terror. Another wave crashed over him, forcing water into his lungs. He coughed violently, still struggling.

The last thing the sailor saw with mortal eyes was the ship, listing badly now, steaming away from him. Suddenly, a huge wave, like the hand of God, smashed down on the vessel, obscuring it totally from view.

The sailor trembled once, then sighed as his body went limp. A final wave broke overhead and pushed him under the surface, the Lady swallowing him up for all time.

Chapter One

Isle Royale


From the water, Stone Harbor, home to treacherous reefs and many a shipwreck, is a forbidding place indeed. And on a chill autumn night, with choppy seas roiling beneath black clouds, the harbor can be absolutely terrifying. Yet this night, despite the threat of heavy weather, a yacht approached the great granite cliffs on the western edge of Isle Royale. Its hull painted jet black, its running lights switched off, the yacht merged with the inky darkness, creeping forward on the water like a phantom. Just over the horizon, beyond forested ridges rising up behind the cliffs, an occasional lightning strike lit up the cloud-darkened sky.

Named by French explorers after King Louis XIV, Isle Royale sits in the stormy northwest corner of Lake Superior. It’s a big island encompassing 210 square miles of rugged wilderness, a green jewel set in deep blue. As one approaches from the west, three hours by boat from Minnesota’s North Shore near the Canadian border, the island appears like a sleeping giant on the horizon. Drawing closer, features begin to stand out: above the rocky shore, thick forests of birch, aspen, and jack pine blanket the parallel ridges rising steeply from the waterline. The trees are thick and seemingly impenetrable, except for the occasional bald spot on the Greenstone Ridge, backbone of Isle Royale, rearing up over 1,300 feet and running the length of the island’s forty-five miles (though only nine miles at its widest). Secluded fjords and bays beckon the weary sailor. There’s a timeless quality about the place. On still nights, when the Lady sleeps, fog gently rolls in from the water, enveloping the forests and rocky shores in misty, dreamlike curtains.

Borne of fire deep within the earth’s crust, the island is all that remains of an ancient mountain range running southwest and northeast, parallel to Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Fractured by the sinking of the Superior Basin, Isle Royale was scoured and smoothed by thousands of years of glacial sculpting. As the glaciers melted, they left behind their legacy: jagged inlets and coves and an abundant number of crystal-blue inland lakes.

But Isle Royale’s beauty came with a price. Dozens of shipwrecks lie scattered on Lake Superior’s bottom, prey to the island’s rocky shores and hidden reefs. When storms blow, especially the gales of November, Superior becomes the most dangerous piece of water in the world. On the north and west side of the island especially, the lake develops slow rollers that sweep unsuspecting ships right up on the jagged rocks. Once caught between the waves and cliffs, ships are sunk immediately, or smashed and churned until little remains but driftwood and corpses.

On this dark, windswept night, with storm clouds sweeping across the sky, the black-hulled yacht slowly prowled its way toward Stone Harbor. Actually a bay embracing an archipelago of small islands and several submerged reefs, the harbor is lined with granite cliffs towering 150 feet straight up from the lakeshore. Only a handful of places are suitable for boats to land, and even these are dicey in rough weather.

The yacht made a course correction as it rounded Wilson Island at the mouth of the harbor, its bow pointed toward a tiny spit of land jutting out from the cliff face of Wolf Point. The ship bobbed and tossed on the choppy water. A wooden dock just large enough to accommodate two boats extended from the narrow beach ahead.

A man wearing a black mackintosh emerged from the cabin of the yacht. Gripping the side rail, he carefully made his way to the bow and stood there, gazing forward, paying no heed to the wind and spray stinging his exposed face.

As the outline of the beach came into sharper view, a light atop the craggy granite cliffs suddenly pierced the darkness. The brilliant beam swept across the water, illuminating the yacht for an instant. The man on deck threw his arm up and winced. Then the light was gone, sailing far out over the surface of the lake.

A wave crashed over the yacht’s bow, drenching the mysterious stranger. He held the rail tight and rode with the ship as it sank down, then shot back up, sending his stomach into tailspins. He ignored the sickness in his belly and stared upward at the light perched on the cliff. His eyes narrowed to slits as he tried to focus through the wind and water spray. He cocked his head as he heard, above the roar of the wind and the pounding of the surf, the faint sound of… bagpipes.

A smile crept onto the man’s lips. Then, like water crashing against a rocky shore and trickling back to the lake, the smile held for a moment and slowly faded, leaving only piercing, malevolent eyes to stare longingly at the light atop the cliffs.

End of Excerpt

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Wilding permalink
    March 7, 2013 10:22 pm

    How is it that Collene and LeBec were to be married when he went to Europe in 1917, but in 1924 she has a teenage son, Ian, by her husband Clarence?
    Other than this temporal anomaly the story is well crafted.

    • March 13, 2013 9:18 am

      A much earlier draft had the story taking place in the 1930s, with the kids being much younger (10 or 12 or so). In subsequent drafts, the time changed to the 1920s. Later on, I also realized that the kids needed to be much older to accomplish the physical tasks required of them (scaling a cliff, etc.), so I bumped them up to 16.

      So, the story’s temporal anomaly is an author mistake, or… maybe Collene had a child out of wedlock with LeBeck, and after he went to war and abandoned her, Clarence married her and adopted Ian. That kind of adds a nice tragic layer to the story.


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