Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antacrtica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro (Biography/History, January 2018).
Already an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist, Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s first nonfiction book tells the story of Billy Gawronski, a New York teen who became briefly famous by repeatedly sneaking aboard one of the ships taking part in Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic Expedition of 1928-29. He wasn’t the only adventuresome young man to try stowing away aboard a ship in order to involve himself in this much-hyped exploratory effort, but he was the only one to actually make it to Earth’s southern-most continent. That’s cause he simply refused to give up. Discovered and put ashore twice, he snuck aboard a third time and they basically gave up trying to deny this determined son of Polish immigrants his chance to accompany the party of his idol, the already famed Arctic explorer.
Shapiro wisely opens the book at a moment of dramatic tension: Billy waiting as darkness falls for his chance to swim across the Hudson River to board the recently renamed City of New York and hide himself away in the spot he’d picked out when part of a public tour of the ship a few days earlier.
With Chapter One, “The Golden Door,” the author doubles back to recount how Billy’s parents came to the US, established themselves and began a slow rise to be part of the budding American middle class. The next chapter describes his youth to the restless teen with adventure in his soul and a new high school diploma to his name. It seemed Billy was destined to join his father’s interior decorating business, but he had other things on his mind.
Chapter Three through Seven comprise his great, wildly unlikely adventure to the bottom of the world and its immediate aftermath (including brief acclaim).
The last couple chapters document the rest of Billy’s life–struggling through the Great Depression, becoming an officer (and later Captain) in the Merchant Marine (including harrowing supply runs, dodging German submarines in World War Two), his personal life until his death in the 1980s.
There’s also a brief but memorable account of how Shapiro learned about this forgotten figure, became fascinated by his story and tracked down his widow and a surviving son to flesh out this story of a rebellious, yet well-intentioned Jazz Age youth whose daring life story reads much like an adventure novel–and yet was absolutely true.
A highly enjoyable book, about a certain time in America and the world, and a young man carving out his own place in it.