A guest blog from Anne Gillespie Lewis:
A century ago, the Norwegian cargo ship, the SS Ymer, was torpedoed by a German submarine off a small French island during World War I. An alarm went out and a 12-man lifeboat crew from the fishing island of Ile d’Yeu, off the west coast, set out to find any survivors. They rescued seven of the Ymer’s crew and finally managed to reach the French shore after a harrowing three days and nights fighting snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures. Six of the 12 rescuers from the Paul Tourreil and several of the Norwegians from the Ymer died during those days.
The heroic rescue and the tragic loss of lives are still remembered on the island and a statue commemorating the event, donated by the government of Norway, stands in the center of the island’s port. Over the years the statue became part of the island’s culture. Marie-Andrée Taraud Sadrant, who grew up on the island, remembers it well. She is the focus of the book Marie-Andrée at Ten/Marie-Andrée à Dix Ans, by Anne Gillespie Lewis. The book, which tells the story of one year in her life, when she turned ten, is a series of imaginary letters written to a fictional pen pal. Her version of the story of the statue and its place in island culture is given in the two letters below:
June 1, 1966
Well, the wedding is over and I am sad that it is over because I had a wonderful time. It lasted three days really. That is how we do it in France. The day before we had a big meal for everyone and that was fun.
The next morning was the wedding and we were lucky because it was a beautiful day, with blue sky and nice and sunny. It isn’t always so nice in late May. Anyway, we went to tJhe town hall because all couples have to be married by the mayor to make it official. After that, we went to the church.
I was nervous going down the aisle, but I didn’t trip or anything. And my sister Pierrette was so beautiful! I don’t think I ever saw a bride so beautiful and so close to me.
Then, guess what! All of us marched, like a parade, from the church to the port and we were singing and laughing. When we got there we went to the statue of the Norwegian and Gilbert (that was the groom’s name, remember I told you?) and Pierrette held hands and walked around the statue a few times. I forgot to count and I should have counted because however many times they walk around the Norwegian means how many babies they want!
Then we all went to a big room and had a wonderful wedding meal. We ate lots of seafood, fish, leg of lamb and beef tongue and for dessert our special island tartes aux pruneaux and also floating islands. What a lot to eat!
But that wasn’t the end! After the meal someone played records and people danced. I danced a little bit but I was too shy to dance a lot. Mom made us (me, Annie and Murielle) go to bed before it was all over, but I know they had onion soup just before everyone left.
So, the next day we were all tired but there was another big meal! We ate chicken and veal and fish and more prune pies and many other things. Pierrette and Gilbert are going to stay on Yeu for a while before they have to go back to France.
Cathy left today to go back to France and Gilbert’s family left too. Life is going to be quiet around here after all that. Have you been to many weddings? If you get the chance, you should go because they are so much fun!
I have to quit now and help mom clean up the house and put the extra mattresses away.
June 29, 1966
It is very hot today and later Annie and Murielle and I are going to go to the beach and cool off in the water. Thanks for your letter. I’m glad that you have been to a wedding too. That is all over now. Everything is back to normal. I hope somebody else will get married soon!
Oh, you wanted to know why there is a statue of a Norwegian at the port. I suppose it did sound strange. It has been there ever since Grand-Père was a little boy. In fact, he remembers the day it was put there because there were a lot of important people there, some came from Norway and almost everyone on the island went to the ceremony.
This is what happened, it was during the first World War, in 1917, and this Norwegian ship got torpedoed by a German submarine and all the sailors fell into the water, I guess. Some men from our island found out about this and went to rescue them. They got seven of them back to the island. They were so brave to go out when the Germans were out there.
The government of Norway was so happy that the sailors were saved that they had this statue made because the men had been so brave. And they came to the island and thanked the men who saved them. Six of the sailors were here too (I read all this in a book about the island, I didn’t know all of it until you asked me.) Guess what! One of the Norwegians who came was a man who was on a ship that went to the North Pole! There were some important French people too.
Anyway, it has been a tradition for brides and grooms to walk around this statue for many years. Mom and dad did it too. It is funny that you say you are part Norwegian. I thought Americans were just Americans!
So that is the story. Do you like it?
Write soon! Marie-Andrée
As you can see, Marie-Andrée didn’t know all the details. It is true that a delegation from Norway, including Polar explorer Commander Sigurd Scott-Hansen, who was part of the crew on Fridtjof Nansen’s Fram, came for the dedication, as did the surviving lifeboat crew members. Those who died during the storm were buried, side by side, in Brittany.
The wedding ritual of walking around the statue still exists and it provides a joyful counterpart to a tragedy.
Anne Gillespie Lewis will be signing Marie-Andrée at Ten/Marie-Andrée à Dix Ans At Ingebretsen’s, 1601 East Lake Street, from on Friday, November 24 from 11-1p.m (2017). She will also have copies of her earlier book, A Perfect Tree for Christmas and she may bring cookies!