Reading comic books was considered a waste of time at best and an evil practice at worst in my home when I was a boy. Because of this, I didn’t get to experience and appreciate them for what they are until I left home at 16. From time to time, I enjoy the odd comic, dwelling on the juxtaposed sequences of image panels, along with such textual devices as speech balloons, captions and sound effects indicating dialogue, narration or other information.
To quote one commentator, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, comic books pack a lot of bang for your buck.” Last week, I took it upon myself to read a comic book. And, I’m glad I did.
“Almost Home: The Sinking of the S.S. Caribou” is Jennifer Morgan’s attempt to portray in comic book form the story of the sinking of the passenger ferry off the southwest coast of Port aux Basques on Oct. 14, 1942.
It was a night that continues to live in infamy. In the early morning hours, under cloak of darkness, the German submarine U-69 torpedoed the vessel, sending 138 people to a watery grave, including a Pentecostal pastor’s wife and her two young daughters, a story in itself.
Now, seven decades later, the writer and visual artist from St. John’s recreates that eventful night in stunning colour. Her vivid illustrations bring to life the history and aftermath of the Caribou’s final voyage.
Morgan has a personal connection to the vessel; the second engineer, Thomas Moyst, was her great-grandfather. Actually, it was his 66th birthday and he was working his final shift before retiring when he was killed. Although they never met, she grew up hearing stories from her grandmother, Violet Moyst Morgan; her father, George Morgan; and her aunts and uncles.
Her comic book is as true as the accounts her family told about the night the Caribou disappeared beneath the waves. In an interview with The Telegram, Morgan said her great-grandfather’s “birthday cake was waiting for him, and he’d bought prizes and little presents for his guests.”
It was heartrending when her uncle “remembered showing up at his house to pick up his father’s body, and there was this cake and these gifts. It made a historical, factual story into a story of family and loss. He’s not a statistic. He’s a real person.”
“Almost Home” tells a story within a story. Morgan’s aunt, who was 11-years-old at the time of her grandfather’s death, woke up screaming the night the Caribou sank.
“There was a man sitting in my chair, looking at me,” she said. “and he had a salt and pepper hat and a gold watch just like Grand- pa’s.” Her father counseled his daughter, “Go back to sleep, Vi, you had a nightmare. We’ve all been worried about Grandpa.”
But, Vi continued, “it wasn’t a dream, daddy. There really was a man sitting right there!” she exclaimed.
The tale Morgan tells, though true in all respects, is made even more realistic by the inclusion of such things as photographs, a child’s ration book issued by Newfoundland’s Department of Supply, Newfoundland War Savings stamps and a postal stamp featuring the Caribou. One of the most sobering items is an excerpt from the diary of the German submarine, U-69: “One shadow in sight. Behind it a small one.... Freighter- passenger vessel belching heavy smoke.... Visibility very good, weak aurora borealis.”
Another evocative document is a cablegram from Western Union, “Engineer Thomas Moyst confirmed dead. His body recovered from Gulf.”
An additional piece of memorabilia is a list of the 17 things an air raid warden should know, including the occupants of his group of houses and whether they are aged or infirm, how to reach the roofs and what ladders are available, any places providing good shelter, any places of special danger, the location of nearest first aid post, the evacuation point for his area, and how to extinguish fires. Morgan’s book may be written with young readers in mind, but her keen eye to detail makes it appealing to all ages.
“Almost Home: The Sinking of the S.S. Caribou” is published by Breakwater Books of St. John’s.