Fifty-two-year-old Navy Captain Stephen Rensselaer has spent his entire adult life in service to his country. A graduate of Annapolis, he qualified as a Navy SEAL, earned a doctorate from Harvard, and spent time aboard ships and in ports around the world. Though Rensselaer is a bit of a maverick, his fellow officers respect his skills and patriotism, and he will likely retire with the rank of admiral.
It’s a sure bet until he crosses swords with the president of the United States.
During a meeting with the chief executive, government officials, and Navy officers, Rensselaer opposes the president’s plan to do away with the Navy’s smallest ships, known as Patrol Coastals (PCs), one of which Rensselaer commanded in the past. Following that conference, the irate president orders Rensselaer’s superior, Secretary of the Navy Freeland, to post Rensselaer on the latest PC prototype—and what the president intends as the last such ship of its kind—the Athena. Assignment to that post constitutes an enormous step down for a man of Rensselaer’s rank, and the president is hoping that this public humiliation will lead him to resign.
But the president has misjudged the man. Rensselaer departs for New Orleans and dutifully takes command of the Athena while the ship is being outfitted for sea.
So begins Mark Helprin’s novel “The Oceans and the Stars: A Sea Story, A War Story, A Love Story.
The Story in ShortIn New Orleans, Capt. Rensselaer’s life takes two unexpected turns. First, he meets 48-year-old tax attorney Katy Farrar. Like him, Katy is divorced, works in a position inferior to her abilities, and has come to believe that she will never truly find love. Mr. Helprin crafts their attraction and courtship with such deft grace that when Stephen proposes and Katy accepts, readers may feel like standing up and cheering.
However, that proposal’s timing is the result of a second twist of fate. Iran has attacked U.S. shipping and naval vessels, the Middle East has exploded, and after a stop in Norfolk, Virginia, the Athena will be off to war thousands of miles away. Rensselaer has just packed his bags and is ready to ship out when he asks for Katy’s hand in marriage.
Here the story turns from love to war. Though we catch glimpses of Katy Farrar as she waits and worries about Rensselaer, and of his dreaming about her and the life they may someday share, the narrative next focuses in large part on the intensive training of the Athena’s crew. It includes a contingent of SEALs under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Holworthy. From time to time, Rensselaer delivers encouraging talks to individuals and to the crew as a whole. He designs these addresses to give them a glimpse of what they are about to encounter in combat, to remind them of their mission as defenders of their country, and to stiffen their spines. He also reminds himself and his men that they are ultimately fighting for those they love. Some of his comments are amusing, as when he quotes Shakespeare to his officers and realizes that they have no idea what he is talking about.
When combat finally comes, the fighting is fierce and brutal. Initially, the mission of Rensselaer and his men is to pursue and engage an Iranian frigate, the Sahand, a larger and much more powerful vessel than their own. Later, they find themselves battling Somali jihadists and pirates who seized a cruise ship and began systematically murdering and raping the passengers. Much of the fighting takes place on land, with a mixed contingent of sailors and SEALs led by Holworthy and Rensselaer to battle the jihadists.
To say more would reveal too much of the plot, but the story ends with a surprise that should please readers.
An Epic and Its TreasuresFans of Mark Helprin’s earlier novels, like “A Soldier of the Great War,” will not be disappointed, and newcomers will be impressed as well. The sometimes lush foliage of his earlier prose is trimmed back a bit, but the enchantment in his descriptions remains. Mr. Helprin also retains a superb ability to sway our hearts and rouse our minds, moving us, for example, from laughter and smiles to tears, and from the serenity created by his word paintings of the sea to the rage at the terrorists’ vicious acts aboard the cruise ship.
The seal of the U.S. Naval Academy bears the motto “Ex Scientia Tridens,” or “From Knowledge, Seapower,” and Mr. Helprin brings a wealth of knowledge about ships, weapons, strategy, and geopolitics to “The Oceans and the Stars.” Readers who enjoy books replete with technical detail will discover lots to please them here. Those who relish tales of adventure and war will find the same.
Moreover, the action depicted in “The Ocean and the Stars”—the chaos, battle, and bloodshed in the Middle East—reads like today’s headlines. The depraved savagery that the Hamas terrorists displayed on Oct. 7, 2023, for instance, are right in line with Mr. Helprin’s description of the brutal murders, beatings, and rapes on the cruise ship.
An Officer and a GentlemanPerhaps the greatest of Mr. Helprin’s gifts to his readers is Stephen Rensselaer himself. The captain cares for his men, yet he maintains an appropriate distance between a commander and his subordinates. He drills them hard on the skills that may save their lives and those of their shipmates, and works creatively to maintain their morale. He’s also a man who knows how to love deeply, as we see in his affection and treatment of Katy. He appreciates goodness, beauty, and truth.
Rensselaer possesses virtues that remain uncompromised even on the brink of death or in a court of military law. Coupled with courage and honor is his sense of duty. Speaking of the United States, he says: “We have become a civilization that elevates idiots, prostitutes, and clowns. Am I still to defend it? Yes, for its principles. Yes, for what it was. Yes, for what it still may be.” This is a hope, a fervent hope, that so many of us feel today, though we may be unable to put it into words.
Do We Have the Leaders We Need?One criticism to level at “The Oceans and the Stars” comes in the form of a question: Does such a Navy as described by Mark Helprin still exist? Are there still patriotic and valiant leaders like Stephen Rensselaer in command of crews as competent and fit as the one in this book? Like the Army and the Air Force in the last few years, the Navy has fallen short of its recruiting goals, despite lowering standards, including most recently, not requiring a high school diploma. Obesity, particularly in the Navy, is now an issue of concern, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion trainings are presumably ongoing.
“The Oceans and the Stars” mentions none of these topics.
Shortly after the 1968 publication of Anton Myrer’s saga about war and Army life, “Once an Eagle,” that novel became required reading at West Point. It features Sam Damon, a leader who resembles Stephen Rensselaer in many ways, and the book remains a favorite among military leaders. Perhaps the Naval Academy should apply this same idea to their midshipmen and have them read and study “The Oceans and the Stars.”
At any rate, American parents should hope and pray that when war comes, their sons and daughters will fall under the command of officers like Capt. Stephen Rensselaer.
‘The Oceans and the Stars: A Sea Story, A War Story, A Love Story’ By Mark Helprin Harry N. Abrams, Oct. 3, 2023 Hardcover: 512 pages