Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers

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9780684873046: Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers
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A history of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, an ancestor of the modern Coast Guard, focuses on a crew of seven men, led by former slave and Civil War veteran Richard Etheridge, stationed on Pea Island, North Carolina, and their heroic exploits, including the rescue of the entire crew of the E. S. Newman during a hurricane in the 1890s. 25,000 first printing.

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Review:

Fire on the Beach is a wonderful book on a forgotten piece of history: The story of an all-black unit of the U.S. Life-Saving Service on North Carolina's "beautiful and unforgiving" Outer Banks. Stationed on Pea Island, near the hazardous "Graveyard of the Atlantic," the men of the segregated Station 17 showed that African Americans were just as capable as their white peers when it came to saving the lives of sailors and passengers whose ships foundered on deadly shoals. Their leader was Richard Etheridge, an inspiring figure born into slavery. He fought during the Civil War and later entered the LSS. Much of the book is a reconstruction of his life, and Civil War buffs will appreciate the extensive treatment given to his military service.

Yet Fire on the Beach is not a mere biography. It's a fascinating portrait of 19th-century Outer Banks culture, long before these isolated little towns became tourist destinations. Authors David Wright and David Zoby, for instance, describe "wreckers" whose main occupation--a surprisingly profitable one--was combing the beach for the detritus of shipwrecks. The town of Nags Head apparently derives its odd name from this weird heritage: "Many claim that the name Nags Head originated in an era when malicious wreckers would tie a lantern around an old horse's neck and lead it up and down the dunes. From the sea, the rising and falling light would give the impression of a ship safely moored in a harbor, taunting unsuspecting ship captains to sail to their destructions." Even without these manmade deceptions, the seas off the coast of North Carolina were plenty treacherous, giving Etheridge and his men lots of rescue work. Race is a necessary and fundamental theme of the book, and Etheridge knew he would have to defy white skeptics by proving his abilities over and over: "There was no room for error. The continuation of the black station could be compromised by any slipup, no matter how slight. Misjudgment or poor performance could result in his or one of his crewmen's dismissal. Inadequacies, no matter how slight, could lead to the reinstatement of a white keeper and crew. They had to excel if they were to maintain their station." Fire on the Beach ultimately rises above the parochialism of race: It is a gripping story about "a man among the men" and his harrowing exploits. When Wright and Zoby describe Etheridge's role in saving the crew of the schooner E.S. Newman in hurricane conditions, the skin color of Etheridge and his men does not matter at all. Fans of The Perfect Storm and Isaac's Storm--books that mix thrilling sea stories with calamitous weather--are sure to enjoy Fire on the Beach. --John Miller

About the Author:

David Wright is an assistant professor of English and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois. The recipient of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award, he has published in The Southern Review and African-American Review, among others.

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9780195154849: Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers

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ISBN 10:  0195154843 ISBN 13:  9780195154849
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2002
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