A novel about a young man who, after failing to save a fellow camp counselor, is compelled by guilt to abandon his own identity and live like a fugitive. 1947.
Home Port was one of those books that caught me even before I started reading. A friend of mine on Goodreads wrote a review of it, and I immediately went and found the book. Even more impressively, once I had the book in hand, I actually decided to read it right away…!
Home Port opens with Murray Vale, our protagonist, a counselor at a boys’ summer camp he’s been attending since childhood. Murray is out on a canoeing trip with a fellow counselor, Briggs, as they plan a route for a future trip with the campers. Murray feels sorry for Briggs, who has a heart condition, is a relative of the camp director, and is ignored by pretty much everyone.
A storm comes up suddenly, and Murray and Briggs are in very real danger. Murray tries to save Briggs from drowning. In doing so, his own life is almost lost–and Briggs cannot be saved.
The episode leaves Murray in shock. He’s stranded out in the Maine wilderness. Even if he manages to find camp again, how can he face his friends and family with the knowledge that he wasn’t able to protect the weak, after all?
As we get to know Murray better, we see that he suffers from a serious inferiority complex. His older brother, Windy, is the football hero-type, with a tragic twist: an bout of polio that left him paralyzed below the waist. Even in his wheelchair-bound state, Windy is exalted, carried on the football players’ shoulders like a mascot:
Once a friend of his mother’s, standing beside him looking down at the exhibition, exclaimed, ‘Aren’t you proud to be the brother of such a hero?’ There were tears in her eyes, she was so moved by the combination of Windy’s misfortune and his ovation.
What we see, as Murray recovers now from near-drowning, is that he’s at an important crossroads. For the past two years, he’s been studying law so he can join the family firm–except he has no interest in pursuing law. What he truly wants is to be accepted as the inferior son, and be allowed to pursue his own interests.
Leaving the riverbank, Murray winds his way through the forest. Coming upon a local cottage, Murray takes shelter but finds he can’t quite confess to being the missing camp counselor. Instead, he takes on a new identity and flees.
His adventures from here are rather happenstance, guided by fear of being caught, rather than guided by a definite plan. He ends up eventually at another camp in Vermont, where he falls in love for the first time. Still under this false identity, he later goes to fight in WWII.
Home Port is wonderful from beginning to end. I loved the depth with which we get to know Murray–even if we just want to yell at him, “You’re not as sucky as you think!” Because the beautiful part of this novel is that Murray has seriously underestimated everyone around him. He doesn’t need to be an athlete or a lawyer or a larger-than-life hero. He’s kind, courageous, and a great scholar of the natural world.
Above all, I’d say Home Port is a lesson in letting people be themselves. And once Murray learns to be himself, it’s a pretty cool thing to be behold. I recommend this book if you like adventure stories and relish a good ending. Come to think of it, it’s rather like a stereotypical book of the earlier 1900s–just without all the melodrama.
Have you read anything else by Olive Higgins Prouty? A couple of her other books (Now, Voyager and Stella Davis) were made into films, but those stories seem so different from Home Port. Recommendations?