Moses Grandy captained the waters of the Dismal Swamp Canal, and the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean. He was a slave and then a freeman.
John Newland Maffitt navigated the great seas of the world, eventually becoming a Confederate naval commander. He was born white, and free.
Both men were sea captains from eastern North Carolina. Both men lived parallel lives, yet years apart. And both men are the subjects of Bland Simpson’s latest non-fiction novel, “Two Captains From Carolina.”
Simpson’s work is a lyrical telling of the lives of these men. It is a look into the past, detailing the dramatic turns and the heroic efforts of two vastly different men who have the sea in common.
Simpson, who is an Elizabeth City native and professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will be on hand Thursday at Page After Page, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and then at Museum of the Albemarle, 7:30 p.m. to discuss and sign copies of a book that will carry you through the history of these two disparate lives, told by a master storyteller.
Simpson could have told the story of these two men in two different books. He could have spent page after page unveiling the hardship of Grandy, a Camden County slave who worked hard for his freedom. He could have reveled in the seafaring life of Maffitt alone, but instead chose to parallel their lives.
“It was an artistic inspiration,” says Simpson of his decision to tell their stories together. “A notion is a more direct word.”
And sometimes a great notion, if you will, results in a great work, such as “Two Captains.”
William Faulkner had used this narrative device, Simpson says. He used it with two well-known stories, “Wild Palms,” and “Old Man.” The stories themselves stand alone, yet told together they paint a more complete picture, perhaps, of a world so vastly different than our own.
Simpson had considered this book back in 2005 when spending time with friends in Carteret County. He began the journey, contemplating telling the story of a captain other than Maffitt, but turned to the Wilmington seafarer when he realized a friend and writer, Sonny Williamson, had “exhausted” the stories of Capt. Matthew Gooding.
“Their activities and their fates are different, but on one level, in a way, they change places in the sense that Grandy got out and even against phenomenal difficulty almost didn’t,” says Simpson of his narrative.
Grandy struggled to become a freeman and eventually left the South. Maffitt left the South to sail the world as a capable navigator and chart maker. But he would return to become a naval captain for the very people that would enslave Grandy.
One man leaves and another returns.
Grandy had been a slave, owned by several people in Camden and Pasquotank Counties, most notably, perhaps, was Enoch Sawyer. Grandy plied the waters of the region up to Norfolk, carrying local timber and shingles for sale in Virginia.
He was known for his acumen on the water. He was working to buy his freedom. He would have to buy his freedom three times before he left the region, his freedom in hand.
Maffitt grew up in North Carolina to become a capable, smart and appealing man, says Simpson. He would sail the world but in a time of conflict, his Southern roots would pull him back home.
“They were men of tremendous character and courage,” says Simpson. “It takes a lot of courage to face the waters whether they are interior waters or the blue seas.”
Both men, Simpson says, had a sense of purpose. And Simpson does a fine job bringing that sense of purpose to bear as he narrates in vivid detail the historical facts of their lives, yet applying creative license to better paint a picture of dramatic moments that were perhaps seared into the minds of these men, but left to capable hands to bring them to life in literary color.
Researching the details of their lives, Simpson is able to tell their stories as though you are there, with them, experiencing the pain of near hopelessness, for example, as Grandy’s bid for freedom is once again dashed.
Simpson, by way of example, points to a moment in “Two Captains” when on Christmas Eve, Grandy finds out that he’s been sold again. Grandy’s own memoir provides some details, but Simpson would have to use his own powers of observation and narrative to provide you with the details of the event that happened in Newbegunland along the Pasquotank River.
And he does in beautiful prose. He makes you believe you are there, with Grandy and Maffitt, experiencing these significant moments of their lives.
Simpson says he’s a “balladeer,” not a historian. So using historical fact he becomes the storyteller. And he tells one helluva story.