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Roar of the Sea: Treachery, Obsession, and Alaska's Most Valuable Wildlife

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A swashbuckling narrative of treachery and obsession involving pirates, fur seals, competing governments, and near war. "In Roar of the Sea , [Deb Vanasse] writes with verve and dramatic impact, reconstructing the narrative of Elliott's tenacious crusade in a way that will transport the reader back to the cacophonous seal rookeries, to the bloody, blubber-slicked decks of the sealing ships, and to the elegant meeting rooms of the nation's capital. While bringing deserved attention to Elliott for his wildlife conservation work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Vanasse ends with a sobering those seal rookeries on the Pribilof Islands are now facing new human-caused threats—and could use 21st century advocates."
— The Daily Astorian/Coast Weekend "Now comes a fascinating, full history of the fur seal story, pitting artist and advocate Henry Wood Elliott against the most famous of the seal pirates, a man named Alex MacLean, and a whole host of ill-informed and corrupt business and political titans. Deb Vanasse, a former Alaskan who now lives in Oregon and is the author of many previous books—including Wealth Woman, about the Klondike gold rush—has done extensive research to illuminate the historical characters, the difficulties of reaching an international agreement to protect wildlife, and the significance of that treaty today."
— Anchorage Daily News Over a century ago, treachery in Alaska's Bering Sea twice brought the world to the brink of war. The US seized Canadian vessels, Great Britain positioned warships to strike the US, and Americans killed Japanese pirates on US soil—all because of the northern fur seals crowded together on the tiny Pribilof Islands. The herd's population plummeted from 4.7 million to 940,000 in the span of eight years while notorious seafarers like Alex MacLean (who inspired Jack London's The Sea-Wolf ) poached indiscriminately. Enter an unlikely crusader to defend the self-taught artist and naturalist Henry Wood Elliott, whose zeal and love for the animals inspired him to go against all odds and take on titans of the sea. Winning seemed impossible, and yet Elliott managed to expose corruption and set the course for modern wildlife protections that are all the more relevant today as the world grapples with mass extinction. Carefully written and researched, Roar of the Sea reveals the incredible hidden history of how one lone activist existing in the margins prevailed against national governments and corporate interests in the name of wildlife conservation.

228 pages, Paperback

Published February 1, 2022

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About the author

Deb Vanasse

22 books37 followers
Deb Vanasse is the award-winning author of 18 books of fiction and nonfiction, with a special interest in history, historical fiction, and nature. Her newest book is Roar of the Sea. She grew up in the Midwest, attended college in Northern Minnesota, and earned a Masters in the Humanities from California State/Dominguez Hills. After 36 years in Alaska, she now lives on Oregon’s north coast, enjoying beach walks with her boxer dog.

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Displaying 1 - 7 of 7 reviews
Profile Image for Christine.
6,675 reviews489 followers
March 22, 2022
Disclaimer: I received an ARC via a LibraryThing giveaway.

When I was a child, there was a huge campaign to save baby seals that were being clubbed for commercial fur (I think). Anyway, the campaign got to the point where there were even stickers of Barbie saving the baby seals. Commercial seal hunting still happens, but it wasn’t until I read this book that I learned that the debate over hunting seals simply for their fur has been happening for a heck of a lot longer than I thought.

Vanasse details the struggle of Henry Wood Elliott to save the fur seals of Pribilof Islands, a group in the Bering Strait. It should be noted that while Vanasse writes about the commercial killing of the seals by companies and pirates who just massively kill for the fur, she draws a distinct difference between that an the Indigenous population, the Unangax, does in terms of hunting for food.

Vanasse tells the story primary using two men. The first, Alex MacLean was a pirate, a man who slaughtered the seals illegally to sell their fur but who also inspired a character created by Jack London. The second is Henry Wood Elliott himself, the aforementioned man who decided to save the seals. What follows is a book that details how pirating of seal fur works and struggles in terms of law to protect the animals.

Vanasse’s prose is invigorating, and while she could have easily been side tracked by or written a totally different book about MacLean, her focus on the seals and Elliott are presented in a gripping way, even when Elliott is dealing with the political mess that is Washington. While the book Is not a biography of either man, Vanasse does deal with their personal lives, including their childhoods. But she also does deal with the treatment of the Unangax under both Russian and American laws/hands. This is important.

The book is also relevant today not only because commercial seal hunting is ongoing but because we are still asking the questions about conservation, management (or even if we should manage as oppose to save), as well as trying to get the government to do anything.

It should be noted that the focus of the book is on the saving of the seals, so it is not (nor is advertised as such) a book about the biology of the seals. While Vanasse does touch on some of these aspects, it is not the center of this excellent book.

Profile Image for Erin Cataldi.
2,242 reviews84 followers
October 24, 2022
Admittedly a hard read, especially if you don't like reading about animal violence - but truly an important one. I had no idea about the plight of fur seals and the efforts undertaken at the turn of the nineteenth century to save them. Roar of the Sea is part history and part biographies for two dashing men; Henry Wood Elliot, an amateur scientist who by chance went to the Pribilof Islands and fell in love with the fur seals and set about studying them and Alex MacLean, a pirate who specialized in illegally killing seals and selling their pelts. Elliot spent his whole life trying to save the fur seals while MacLean spent his life trying to undermine Elliot and turn a handsome profit. Maclean was s notorious he was even inspiration for Jack London's famed novel, The Sea Wolf. Elliot on the other hand was constantly belittled and challenged by government officials who sought to discredit him in order to keep slaughter tens of thousands of fur seals a year. In mere years the Pribilof Islands had lost more than half their millions of seals and if actions weren't taken they would soon be extinct. A little tedious at times, and definitely violent - but an important enlightening read.
Profile Image for Gregory.
324 reviews1 follower
July 22, 2022
Roar of the Sea is a captivating story of fur seals of Alaska in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The stories of the American bison/buffalo and passenger pigeons have been oft and well told, but that of the seal is much more limited, especially in the popular literature.

Author Deb Vanasse weaves the story mainly around two individuals. Henry Wood Elliott is the central protagonist. An Ohioan by birth, Elliott was an artist/naturalist sent by the Smithsonian Institution in early 1870s to study the fur seals of Alaska. He believed that the seal fur trade could be an enormous economic asset to the United States, as it had been for the Russians, if properly managed. More importantly, though he fell in love with the seal and spent the remainder of his long life as their champion. His dedication to the seals was often a lonely fight in the face of powerful adversaries. The Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) and later the North American Commercial Company (NCCC) were the federally appointed monopolies with exclusive right to kill seals on land. Their supporters and investors included some of the most powerful economic and political figures in the United States.

If Wood was the hero, Alex McClean was the antagonist. He was a colorful Canadian pirate who made a comfortable living killing seals in the water. Jack London modelled the character of Wolf Larsen in his novel Sea Wolf (1904) on Alex McLean. Vanesse uses McLean’s actions to show the brutality of the seal killing on sea, the flow of money in the fur seal skins, and the enormous legal and logistical obstacles to protecting the fur seals. Unlike Elliott who wished to preserve the species from extinction (a fear that became more palpable when Americans came to understand in the 1890s that the buffalo stood on the precipice of extinction), McLean was content to make as much money as he could off the seals, even if that drove them extinction.

Deb Vanasse tells an exciting story. There is corruption, powerful companies, and whistleblowers; threats of war, armed conflict, diplomacy, and treaties; governmental wrongdoing, misdeeds, and cover-up; and questionable hypotheses advanced as proven science by recognized experts. Wood and McLean might be the main characters, but many great men make their appearance on stage as well. Reputations are made, lost, destroyed, and, occasionally, reclaimed.

It is also a story of conservation and wildlife protection. Wildlife conservationist and Bronx Zoo director William T. Hornaday might be the third character in this story. Unlike Elliott, Hornaday was an experienced lobbyist, conservation campaigner, and wildlife publicist, who matched Elliott’s passion for seals with the necessary skills to obtain some measure to protect them. Together they convinced Congress to end the lease system and for the United States to join in multi-power talks that resulted in a treaty in 1911 that protected the seals. Finally finding a respite from a century of relentless commercial killing, the fur seal population recovered. In the end Wood won the day.
Profile Image for Tonstant Weader.
1,206 reviews68 followers
May 24, 2022
Roar of the Sea tells the of the Pribilof Islands seals through the lives of two men who were lifelong antagonists though they never met. Henry Wood Elliott is the true hero of the story, a naturalist who fought nearly thirty years to save the Pribilof seals, at great personal cost. Then there is Alex MacLean, the brash sea captain whose killing prowess inspired Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf” and whose virile derring-do comes through in Deb Vanasse’s history as well.

He was handsome and a skilled sailor. He also killed millions of seals and made fortunes time and time again while drinking and wasting it away on the waterfronts. I found him repugnant but can understand that larger-than-life people have a mystique that sometimes is allowed to compensate for their character flaws.

Elliott, on the other hand, was pilloried and attacked by lesser men because they were corrupt and put their pockets ahead of their principles again and again. His life story is a story of Gilded Age corruption that ran through every administration. Even into the Progressive Era, the corruption remains intact.

Vanasse carries us through the history of Elliott’s fight to save the seals and the sealers efforts to kill as many as they could until they drove them into extinction, when at last a treaty is agreed upon, it is the first international treaty to save a species from extinction. With Japan, Russia, the UK, Canada, and the US coming together to save the seals, a precedent was created that led to treaties in the future for migratory birds, whaling, and other endangered species.

Roar of the Sea is an excellent example of how a regional history from a regional publisher, Alaska Northwest, can be so much more than that and be worthy and interesting to people from far away. Vanasse successfully ties seal hunting and the battle to save the seals of the Pribilof Islands to other species, international law, and contemporary environmental issues worldwide. This rises above the usual parochialism of most regional histories and is fascinating reading for anyone.

Vanasse brings Elliott and MacLean to life. She also does a great job with other people who are part of this story. There is so much to the story, I am constantly surprised by the slim volume that contains it all. I confess, though, that I often found it hard going, mostly because the pace and ferocity of the killing was hard to stomach and I had to take breaks from the sheer bloodiness of it all. Nonetheless, this is an excellent history that is good reading for its own sake as well as for the information.

I received an ARC of Roar of the Sea from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.

Roar of the Sea at West Margin Press | Alaska Northwest Books
Deb Vanasse author site

Profile Image for Deba.
146 reviews35 followers
February 1, 2022
Roar of the Sea is an engaging meditation on idealism vs materialism by Deb Vanasse. Soon to be one of America's most idealistic voices.
Vanasse's well-told tale is a great adventure story, yet it is much more. Throughout the pages, Vanasse imparts much existentialist philosophy without it ever seeming forced or extraneous to the storyline. Her trick in doing that lies in her complex characters, the likes of which I've never before encountered!. The writing is so good, an awe-inspiring seafaring tale, based on true events.
A sailing adventure, a struggle for survival, the waxing and waning of dominance, personal discovery and growth along with a love story are seamlessly wrapped together and proved to me that " Roar of the Sea," is a classic worthy of a revisit or an introduction to Deb Vanasse s great writing.
I received this book from the Author for my honest review. Love it. I highly recommend this book to everyone.
Profile Image for Elisabeth.
107 reviews
October 2, 2022
I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

The complex story of environmental protection efforts by Henry Elliott at the turn of the 20th century. A naturalist and artists, Elliott spent the majority of his life fighting for the protection of fur seal colonies in remote islands in Bering sea. Complicated by pirates, domestic politics, and international tension, Elliott's efforts led to ground breaking protection legislation that was the basis for a multitude of subsequent Acts, Treaties, and policies vital to wildlife conservation globally. An important story cluttered with endless characters acting on their own personal interests.
Profile Image for Rhonda.
270 reviews23 followers
May 26, 2022

If you are into pirates and treasure do not miss an opportunity to soak this one up. Happy page turning.
Displaying 1 - 7 of 7 reviews

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