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February 2019: A Pearl In The Storm (Murden McClure)

posted Mar 7, 2019, 1:31 PM by East Bay Smith Club

At our last book club meeting, eleven of us gathered at Nancy’s house to discuss Tori Murden McClure’s book A Pearl in the Storm:  How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean.  McClure is the first women and first American to have rowed solo across the Atlantic and the first woman and first American to ski overland to the geographic south pole.  She has a bachelor’s degree from Smith College (yay!), a Master of Divinity from Harvard, a law degree from the University of Louisville, and a Master of Fine Art from Spalding University.  Clearly, her life has been full of achievement.  However, A Pearl in the Storm focuses on one of her biggest failures:  her first attempt to row across the Atlantic in 1998, a year which would turn out to have one of the worst hurricane seasons in recorded history.  


After rowing two-thirds of the way to Europe, McClure is hit by a series of high-powered storms, with waves up to seven-stories high.  Her communications are knocked out and her boat capsizes numerous times, injuring her seriously.   Unwilling to ask others to risk their lives to save her, she waits for a lull in the storms before triggering her emergency beacon.  She is rescued by a cargo ship and brought back to America.  


Although her safe return from such terrible conditions is celebrated by her friends, family and the American public, McClure is haunted by feelings of failure and helplessness that threaten to drive those who care about her away.  Fortunately, with the help of a new relationship and with her work with the Muhammed Ali foundation, McClure comes to terms with what has happened.  She realizes that her voyage across the ocean taught her unexpected lessons, ones that it will take her time to learn and accept.  Inspired by a conversation with Muhammed Ali, she finds the strength to try again, successfully becoming the first woman to row across the Atlantic in December of 1999. 


We all enjoyed reading the book, though getting through the vivid descriptions of McClure’s experiences in the hurricanes was tough.   It certainly left me feeling like I’d had a bit of a virtual beating, and I felt my mind yelling out “Activate the rescue beacon!!!” again and again as McClure was tossed and torn in the cabin of her boat.   I wasn’t the only one who felt this, and others mentioned being puzzled and even annoyed by her unwillingness to ask for help, especially when she refused all but the most basic medical assistance when she was finally rescued.   Of course, she wouldn’t have attempted such an incredible feat without incredible amounts of drive and independence.  Still, as she recognizes, her abhorrence for feelings of helplessness, was one of the greatest challenges that she faced both on her trip and in her life.


McClure’s description of her voyage is intermingled with discussions of her childhood and her educational journey.   Someone commented that they were glad of the breaks, because the descriptions of the journey itself were so intense.   However, McClure’s personal history also included a fair amount of turmoil.   I think this background information made us understand and like McClure all the more.   However, some of us felt that McClure could have done more to tie the themes of this personal history in with the lessons of the failed trip, so that we could fully understand her emotional transformation.  Perhaps, it would have helped if she had included a little more about her successful journey, which is covered only briefly in the final chapter.  We had spent so much time accompanying her through the trauma, perhaps a little more triumph would have been nice, though it is certainly not needed to make McClure’s story an inspirational one.   


These days there is a great focus on accepting failure as an important part of eventual success, and so McClure’s book seems a perfect tale for our times.  In fact, as Veronica discovered, someone is working on turning the book into a musical.  You can see a short TED talk about this here. (If this link doesn’t work search for “Dawn Landes TED talk”.)   Veronica also found some short clips from McClure’s video diary here.


At one point in her book, McClure notes that our culture rarely remembers the names of the first women to achieve various amazing things.  However, as her book’s success attests, and these video clips indicate, perhaps she’ll be an exception to that rule or, even better, a catalyst for its demise.