By Sundae Horn, Island Free Press, July 9, 2008
“Portsmouth is chock full of well-researched historical detail woven in and around a wartime love story.”
The newly-published novel, "Portsmouth: Spies, U-Boats and Romance on the Outer Banks" by Edward P. Norvell, is chock full of well-researched historical detail woven in and around a wartime love story.
If you were a lonely young widow on Portsmouth Island, and you found a handsome sailor washed up on the beach, wouldn't you take him home and feed him? That's what Marcia Styron does when she finds Sub-lieutenant Bruce Hall one morning in May, 1942. After he rests from his ordeal, he tells her he's a British officer, the lone survivor of the HMS Bedfordshire, which was torpedoed off the coast of Ocracoke. The two take a liking to each other, and this being a romance, Marcia offers to keep the shipwrecked sailor for the Coast Guard until they need him for questioning.
But Bruce Hall isn't who he appears to be. He is, in fact, a German submariner named Kurt Sanger sent ashore to find out how much the Americans know about German U-boats and the Enigma code machine that recently went down with the U-85. While Marcia goes shopping in the village, her ersatz sailor sets up radio contact with his German superiors and plots to fool Marcia and spy for his country.
Sanger's not immune to Marcia's charms, however, and he feels conflicted about lying to her. They are young and beautiful and attracted to each other and isolated on the beach far from the village. Matters take their course, and the two become lovers, enjoying the splendors of island living (i.e., seafood feasts and skinny-dipping).
None of the above spoils the story – the basic facts are in the blurb on the back cover. The reader knows about Sanger's true identity from the beginning, but the question is: What happens when two people fall in love and one of them turns out to be an enemy spy? In spite of the undercover intrigue, "Portsmouth" is not so much a mystery or a thriller as it is a history book, but the history lessons are lightened by the romance.
Interspersed around the story of Kurt and Marcia's love affair, are the ugly truths about the war and its devastation. From detailed accounts of the German U-boat offensive to the firebombing of Dresden, it's obvious that author Norvell has done his research well. It's also impressive that he doesn't shy away from the facts that paint the U.S. in a less than perfect light, and he shows empathy toward the German submariners who were courageously doing their part for their homeland, even though many of them were not members of the Nazi party. The German attack on American shipping was kept quiet during the war, and only folks along the coast knew the truth about the dangerous U-boats and the bodies washing ashore. "Portsmouth" is full of historical nuggets of information, and most readers will learn a lot about World War II on the Outer Banks.
Norvell spent the past two summers on Ocracoke doing research for the novel.
"I love history," he said in a recent interview. "And I wanted to write a book about Ocracoke and Portsmouth – it's a fictional story told within the realistic setting of World War II."
Fans of Ocracoke's history will recognize many of the names and places in "Portsmouth." Charlotte O'Neal, the island midwife, makes an appearance, as do Henry Pigott and Aycock Brown. Sanger/Hall takes the mailboat, Aleta, from Portsmouth to Ocracoke, is questioned at the Coast Guard Station and has a drink at the Spanish Casino. Some of the Ocracokers mentioned in the book are still living on the island, and the epilogue takes place in modern day Ocracoke.
Norvell's home is in Salisbury, N.C., where he works as an attorney for non-profit land trusts across North Carolina. He and his wife, Susan, have two children, Philip, 21, and Mary Linn, 23. They visited Ocracoke for years before buying a house here in 2002, where they spend summers.