Arts Reviews Mr. Peffer’s New Book, “Southern Seahawk”

Instructor in English Randall Peffer has surfed, worked on Cape Cod, captained a research schooner, and now penned a novel about the sea. His newly published book, “Southern Seahawk,” transports the reader to the 19th century, on the brink of our country’s civil war. I could almost taste the salty sea air as the seeds of hate and misunderstanding began to blossom into a raging, full-out war on the pages of the story. “Southern Seahawk” follows notorious Raphael Semmes, an actual historical figure, through his magnificent journey and his last grab for glory. As the plot unfolds, the reader experiences the thrill of violent battles and tension of avoiding secret spy networks. Peffer’s novel exposes the Civil War’s injustices through the unique perspective of southern Captain Semmes while at sea. Even though he is “public enemy number one” to the Union, I found the ability to root for him during his struggles. Mr. Peffer commented on the character, “[Semmes] is a middle-aged man with a lousy job, [but he] suddenly has the opportunity of a lifetime – and seizes it. Almost like a Shakespearian hero, larger than life and quite lovable – a rogue.” “So, I guess you could say it’s a book about hope?” I clarified. “Yes, I guess it is,” he said, laughing. The idea for “Southern Seahawk” actually came from another book about the Civil War that Peffer was writing called “Blockade Runner.” His editor wanted it to be centered around real people, so Peffer completely rewrote it, choosing Semmes as the protagonist. Semmes’s story intersects with a back-story of the fighting in the White House between Lincoln and his ambitious cabinet members, over the war. Peffer fleshes out his characters by giving them both flaws and virtues. Semmes, however, hardly needs embellishment. The most successful predator in history, Semmes’ autobiography was required reading of German U-boat captains in World War II. I asked Peffer how he made time to write, juggling his work as a teacher with his career as an author. “Sitting down and writing gives me a high,” said Peffer sincerely. “Writing is a positive addiction.” He told me how he has always loved literature and grew up ravenous for it, with a taste for history. It shows in his novel, which draws on real events. The history of the rapidly changing technology spurred Peffer’s fascination with the Civil War. During the war, wooden ships morphed into iron ones, sailing ships to steam ships, clumsy, heavy cannons to sleek, streamlined rifles and long-range guns. The sea always held a strong pull over Peffer, even as a child. In high school, he was a surfer, and he has always loved boats. At age eighteen he got a summer job in Cape Cod and proceeded to work on traditional sailing vessels in his twenties. He worked on the last fleet of operating sailboats in North America. Then, for fourteen years, Peffer was the captain of Andover’s research schooner, the Sarah Abbot, running a marine science summer program called “Oceans.” So, it was only natural for him to combine his knowledge of the sea with his lust for history and his passion for writing into a novel bursting with excitement. When I asked Mr. Peffer if he had any advice for student writers, his reply was short and simple. “Do it.” “Southern Seahawk” came out the week before winter break. Shortly after its publication, Peffer embarked on a ten-stop book tour that continued for three weeks and included a signing at the Andover Bookstore.