Five Fathoms Beneath is in many ways a (very) dark story, but it’s also a hopeful one. And part of the hope which underlies the novel comes from a story Alec tells his son Brose in the first chapter.
“Lemme tell you a story. I heard it from an American anthropologist when I visited the States, so it isn’t my story, but it makes the point. A man walks on a beach and discovers thousands of starfish stranded by the outgoing tide. He gathers the starfish and tosses them back into the sea. Another man points out the exercise’s futility—”
“Dad, what does ‘futility’ mean?”
I eyed a marbled gecko skulking through my mother’s flowerbed and waited for my father to continue.
“The second man says, ‘What you’re doing doesn’t matter. Miles of beach and thousands of stranded starfish exist. No one could ever throw them all back.’ The first man stops to ponder this conundrum before throwing another starfish into the ocean. He says, ‘It mattered to that one.’ Understand?”
“I understand the story,” I said. “But not what it has to do with being a surgeon.”
“A surgeon can’t save everyone, Brose. What you saw today was rare. When I must open the chest under those conditions, ninety-eight times out of one hundred the heart never beats again. The person dies. When that happens, I wonder could I have done something different? Doctors make mistakes like everyone. But we make our mistakes on living beings.” My father’s shoulders sagged. “And when you make a mistake, you must live with it.”
I narrowed my eyes. He was being modest. He never made mistakes sailing. He always trimmed the sails perfectly, and he always executed his jibes crisply without wavering. And people often approached my mother to tell her how my father had saved their son or daughter.
“However, we all have a choice,” my father continued. “We choose to toss starfish, or we choose to turn away because we consider the world’s problems too great or we don’t want to dirty our hands. As a surgeon, I choose to toss starfish. I hope you’ll choose to toss starfish, too, but it doesn’t have to be as a surgeon. Many ways exist for a man to become a tosser of starfish. What to remember is this line from the Good Book: ‘Let us never weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.’”
So as I mention in the Author’s Note, this story, which is told on March 14, 1959, is actually an historical anachronism because it wasn’t published until 1969. But perhaps Alec met the author …
The “Starfish Story” has been told and retold many times, sometimes even with religious connotations, and almost always without attribution, but it was actually written by Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and science writer. Entitled, “The Star Thrower,” the essay first appeared in Eiseley’s 1969 work, The Unexpected Universe (the book is available through Amazon).
I find “The Star Thrower” appealing, I suppose, because just as Alec states, the world’s problems often seem far too vast for me to fix, but the idea that if we each stepped into the sphere where we could do the most good we could, in fact, change the world, is appealing. It makes changing the world for the better doable. Workable. Something to aspire toward. And in many ways, Five Fathoms Beneath is the story of how Brose, eventually and after long struggle, comes to become a starfish tosser like Alec.
Want to learn more about the life of Loren Eiseley? Visit the website of the Loren Eiseley Society.