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Portsmouth - Spies, U-boats, and Romance on the Outer Banks

portsmouth bookcoverPortsmouth is set on the North Carolina Outer Banks in 1942 during the Battle of the Atlantic when German U-boats operated freely off the east coast of North Carolina. Two German U-Boats were sunk off the North Carolina Coast that spring, the U-85 and the U-352. We follow Kurt Sanger, a German who came ashore on the Outer Banks and falls in love with a local girl while on a spy mission.

Published: Sep. 04, 2009
Words: 77,740
Language: English
ISBN: 9781458171481

By Deirdre Parker Smith, Salisbury Post, July 20, 2008

"Norvell did a lot of research, especially into local history, and uses it to give the book authenticity."

Ed Norvell has a great chance to work on his dream of writing.

With a house on Ocracoke, he has spent the past several summers creating the worlds of two books, "Portsmouth" and "Shadows."

His first book, "Southport," showcased the history of the place, and "Portsmouth" gave him a chance to delve further into "the local history and local lore."

The story takes place during World War II, when German U-boats prowled the coast of North Carolina.

Norvell uses the history of the events and wraps it up in the story of a young widowed woman who lives on the island.

"It's already in all the bookstores and gift shops" in the Ocracoke area, Norvell says.

He did a lot of research, especially into local history, and uses it to give the book authenticity. The U-boats 352 and 85 mentioned in the book are very real, as was the Enigma code machine that wasn't found until the 1980s in the wreckage of U-85 and is now in the museum at the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Norvell writes that more people died off the East Coast than in Pearl Harbor. "There was a news blackout about it, most of country did not know it," he said.

Portsmouth has a long and varied history; in 1753 it was a thriving port, but by World War II, there were just a handful of residents
Later it became something of a ghost town, and is now part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. A church and a few of the homes have been preserved.

"We take a boat out there often," Norvell says. "The beach is fabulous."

When his family started going to Ocracoke in the 1990s, Norvell, who loves history, got really interested in the area.

He "got to talk to local people about the 1944 hurricane," also part of his book. He found a lot of information about the U-boats on the Internet; lists of boats, names, families. "The U-boat commanders lived until the '90s.' The captain of the Bedfordshire, a British boat he writes about, lived until 2002.

During World War II, "Everyone was afraid of spies. ... There was a big panic on the East Coast, but only two incidents of spies, one in Long Island and one in Florida.

The worst thing Norvell discovered in his research was about the deaths of U-85 survivors after a shipwreck. Navy depth charges went into the water when the Americans were afraid there were more submarines around.

"There was such a panic then. America was afraid the U-boats would stage another attack."

In contrast, the Coast Guard saved 33 survivors of the sinking of U-352 and took them to Charleston and Fort Bragg.

Norvell's main characters,Marcia Styron and German U-boat spy Kurt Sanger, are "just figures of my imagination." The two fall in love before Marcia realizes he is not the British soldier he appears to be, and she becomes pregnant with his child as he is taken as a prisoner of war.

"Doing the research was good. I love history. ... It's fascinating doing research, I almost had too much." He learned about POW camps in the states, such as the one in Arizona that housed U-boat personnel.

Most Germans returned to their homeland after the war, but some stayed. Some ended up working on family farms decimated by all the men going to war. Some of the young men working for older people whose children were off at war developed deep friendships.

As "Portsmouth" is released, Norvell is working on yet another book, but says getting published is hard. The book is self-published, but publisher John F. Blair in Winston-Salem will distribute it.

"I think the fictional story is a good vehicle for telling a little-known piece of history that's very much a part of North Carolina."

Norvell's other release is "Shadows," which carries this disclaimer: "This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the names and characters in this book and any real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental."

But Alta Vista seems a lot like Salisbury. Yadkin College or could that be Catawba College? Some local readers say they see a resemblance between the fictional characters and long-time Salisburians.

It's a coming-of-age story. Michael, a college student during the Vietnam War era, comes from a slightly dysfunctional family. Father Alex drinks too much and favors brother Stephen. Mother Virginia keeps Michael close, pinning her hopes and dreams on him.

The chapters feature Michael or Virginia, which can lead to some repetition as each tells their side of a story.

Michael's great love is Lisa, an odd young woman from Connecticut who is emotional and a little manipulative. Naturally, Michael's parents don't like her, and her parents don't like him.

Michael has trouble deciding what he wants to be when he grows up. His father wants him to be an architect; an honorable profession. Michael switches from Tulane to N.C. State to pursue the degree (and Lisa, his parents hope), but discovers he really doesn't like architecture.He wants to write.

He has plenty of fodder; his family, Lisa, his psychedelic experiences with mescaline, his molestation by the family gardener, nights at the Spanish Galleon in Myrtle Beach.

He's in the midst of the sexual revolution, women's rights, and the '70s drug and anti-war culture. It's not easy for a Southern boy.
Michael doesn't know who he is and has a hard time finding direction. A bout with testicular cancer is a serious scare and setback and a the catalyst for more soul-searching.

He's not doing well in school or life. But he wants to write, more than anything in the world. And he wants Lisa--both elude him.

"Shadows" leaves Michael working at the Winston-Salem Journal, unmarried and sort of dating at 30, still searching for answers.

It will be interesting to see how Norvell's writing develops and he explores more subjects.