My Compass and Anchor to Windward
In My Compass and Anchor to Windward, Eleanor Byrd presents a fictionalized account of the extraordinary lives of her grandparents, Admiral Richard “Dickie” Byrd and Marie (née Ames) Byrd. As she explains in her author’s note at the start of the book, Byrd opted to write a work of historical fiction rather than a more straightforward dual biography because she wanted readers to really get to know her grandparents, and she has certainly succeeded masterfully in achieving that aim.
What is to become an epic and enduring love story between Dickie and Marie begins in rather inauspicious fashion in the summer of 1896, when the two eight year olds meet for the first time. Dickie and his brothers, Harry and Tom, have been roughhousing and, to their mother’s consternation, are filthy when they are presented to the visiting Mrs. Ames and her two young daughters, Marie and Katherine. While Dickie initially hopes that the lack of cleanliness will allow him to escape spending time with the girls, he changes his mind as soon as he sets eyes on Marie, and she is equally intrigued by him. The meeting marks the start of a lifelong friendship.
Whereas Marie’s behavior is confined by the expectations of Boston Brahmin society, Dickie is allowed to be much more free-spirited, although his dreaminess and exuberant behavior (and his tendency to engage in scrapes such as taking a potshot at a neighbor’s bottom when she bends over to pick up laundry) exasperate his father. Fortunately, Marie finds Dickie charming from the first and the two continue to meet every summer and to write to each other in the meantime, including when thirteen-year-old Dickie visits his godfather in Manilla during the war between the US and the Philippines and when fourteen-year-old Marie travels to Paris to attend finishing school.
The two eventually recognize that they want more from each other than friendship and they finally marry at the age of twenty-seven, which is as early as possible given Dickie’s commitments due to pursing a career in the navy. Their subsequent life together is characterized by unparallel devotion and astonishing achievements, including Dickie becoming the first person to fly over both the North and South Poles. It’s all true, even if it does sound like the stuff of an adventure/romance novel.
While some of My Compass and Anchor to Windward is told in standard prose style, most of the story is told through letters between Dickie and Marie. The majority of Dickie’s letters to Marie are reproduced verbatim from the original letters that Byrd consulted when writing the book, although only half of her letters to him are original (as Dickie wasn’t one to keep all his correspondence) and the rest are written by Byrd based on extensive family research. The epistolary format works really well as a story-telling device, allowing Dickie’s and Marie’s characters to shine through and highlighting their fondness for each other.
While the romance between the pair is extraordinary in itself, Dickie and Marie also did amazing things while living in truly interesting times. In their own ways, they were pioneers of exploration, technology, transportation, and family life in general, and through My Compass and Anchor to Windward, Byrd elucidates how much the modern world has been influenced by them.
|Page Count||652 pages|
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|Category||Biographies & Memoirs|