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From cannibalism to cover-up, David Grann sees his new shipwreck mystery as a parable

David Grann's latest book, "The Wager," delves into the mysteries of an 18th-century maritime disaster that occurred off Cape Horn.
Rebecca Mandell
David Grann's latest book, "The Wager," delves into the mysteries of an 18th-century maritime disaster that occurred off Cape Horn.
/ Doubleday
/
Doubleday

The latest book from journalist and bestselling author David Grann is a deeply involved history of a 1741 shipwreck that he calls "a parable for our own turbulent modern times."

"I always liked the line from Sherlock Holmes [about] 'truth being stranger than fiction,'" Grann told Morning Edition.

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder will be released on Tuesday and is already being adapted into a movie by Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese. The same team is also bringing another of Grann's historical mysteries to the screen, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

For his latest book, Grann tells NPR's Steve Inskeep he turned to the time of the British Empire and the tale of the HMS Wager, which was wrecked off the coast of Chile. The crew took refuge on an island that Grann's book describes as "swampy, barren in storms, wet with scrubby woodlands and mountains rising into the gloomy mist."

An 18th-century tale with modern themes

"It was just one of the more extraordinary sagas of survival and adventure I'd ever come across....from typhoons and tidal waves and dead reckoning and shipwreck," Grann says. "And then when they're on this island, they begin to descend into a real life 'Lord of the Flies' with warring factions and mutinies and murders, and a few even succumb to cannibalism."

Grann was even more intrigued, he says, by the court martial that followed, when the castaways had to "wage a war over the truth."

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On the history behind "The Wager"

It was just one of the more extraordinary sagas of survival and adventure I'd ever come across. It had just virtually every element you could imagine, again, from typhoons and tidal waves and dead reckoning and shipwreck. And then when they're on this island, they begin to descend into a real life 'Lord of the Flies' with warring factions and mutinies and murders, and a few even succumb to cannibalism.

On the court martial for surviving castaways

What intrigued me even more about the story was not only what had happened on the island, but what happened after some of these castaways incredibly make it back to England. And after everything they've been through, they are summoned to face a court martial for their alleged crimes on the island, and they're suddenly trying to save their lives. They could be hanged after everything. And after waging this war against the elements, they begin to wage a war over the truth.

On the resemblance to contemporary events

There is information and disinformation. There's even allegations of fake news. And there's also war over who would get to tell the history and efforts by those in power to cover up the scandalous truth and the sins of the nation's past. And so I had for me the story that took place in the 18th century. It felt like a parable for our own turbulent modern times.

On storytelling as a tool of national manipulation

Not only were each individual of the survivors trying to shape their stories and tell their stories to serve their own self-interest. What this story really shows is how nations also shape and manipulate and edit their stories to serve their own self-interest. And what happened on Wager Island makes the British Empire look scandalous. It makes their officers look more like brutes and like gentlemen. And so there are those in power who have a vested interest in preferring this all to go away.

On how a shipwreck and trial challenged the British Empire

Sometimes mutinies can be so threatening to the state because what it may show about the system and in this case, this very mutiny held up a light, shined a light on the evil of imperialism and the lie that lay at the heart of the British Empire's justification for somehow conquering other people. It liked to claim that its civilization was somehow superior to others. But here, these men had gotten on the island, the supposed apostles of Western civilization, and they had descended into this Hobbesian state of depravity.

Reena Advani edited the audio version of the interview. Majd Al-Waheidi edited the digital story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jan Johnson