Book Review | The Stowaway
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN ANTARCTICA, not the deep ocean, was considered “the last frontier on Earth left to explore,” and in 1928, the man determined to do so—and to cement his fame, if not his fortune—was Cmdr. Richard Evelyn Byrd.
By then, the explorer and retired naval officer had already suffered public setbacks—Charles Lindbergh narrowly beat him in 1927 as the first to fly nonstop between New York City and Paris, and his claim to have been the first to fly over the North Pole in 1926 was called into question by those who thought he had fudged his coordinates.
Still, according to Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s recent book, The Stowaway, his exploration of the North Pole, his carefully cultivated charisma, and his ambitious plan to be the first to fly over the South Pole captured the imagination of 17-year-old William Gawronski —otherwise destined to join his father’s upholstery business. Gawronski was determined to accompany Byrd on the trip, even if he had to stow away on board to do it.
The tale of this rebellious son of Polish immigrants is made possible, in part, by Byrd’s own public relations efforts about the Antarctic expedition, which were needed to attract financing to cover the costs of the voyage. Part of that fundraising included selling the exclusive rights to the story of the expedition to the New York Times, which would send a reporter, Russell Owen, along on the trip for exclusive coverage.
He was tasked with filing regular stories on the voyage, with the understanding that they highlight the romance and heroism of the crew, particularly Byrd. Owen wrote about the determined young Gawronski, who secured a place on one of the ships in the flotilla with the blessing of Byrd, who was impressed with his persistence in sneaking aboard after several previous attempts in which he was discovered and sent packing.
The Stowaway relies on those articles and on family scrapbooks, correspondence, and books written by some of the crew after the voyage, as well as on interviews with Gawronski’s widow and son, to round out his biography. As there was much less written about Gawronski than his more famous crewmates and expedition leader, there are some gaps in his history that the author has tried to fill in—imagining his feelings for his unnamed first girlfriend, or what he might have gotten up to in shore stopovers in places like Tahiti and New Zealand.
Yet Shapiro includes details that give a sense of the era in which the expedition takes place, from the minute— such as the now-quaint advertisements by some of the voyage’s corporate sponsors—to the revealing, such as describing the unabashedly racist news reports about a black stowaway, Bob Lanier, who also secured a place on one of the ships, at least for a time.
But the story also demonstrates the reasons, many legitimate, Byrd was considered an American hero, as well as reveals his personal foibles, all the while piecing together the history of his unlikely crew member Gawronski, who eventually, the tale reveals, becomes one of the youngest captains in World War II and spends 30 years in the Merchant Marines.
The behind-the-scenes look at the voyage from the point of view of one of its most junior members captures the ethos that drove exploration in the era between two world wars, and what the aftermath of their feat meant for the sailors at the very beginning of the Great Depression.
– By Monica Allard-Cox