“What is there in man … that demands ‘change, travel, excitement,’ as was so succinctly stated by Toad in that delicious volume, ‘Wind in the Willows’?” asks James S. Rockefeller Jr. in his memoir “Wayfarer.’ It’s an apt quote, as the author and Toad share many qualities – chiefly a mercurial passion for adventure and anything to do with an engine.

Cover courtesy of Islandport Press

Rockefeller kept a journal from a young age. Thus, at 92, he is able to re-create with remarkable clarity adventures, exotic places, conversations and eccentric people from his long life. Coupled with his knack for descriptive writing (e. g. a farmer “as gnarled as a hemlock root, with a face so red and pointed it could have been dreamed up by the Brothers Grimm”), the result is a candid and captivating story whose connective tissue is the people he embraced on his travels and the four strong and indelible women that he fell in love with along the way.

He skates quickly over most of his childhood. His father was “painfully shy” and as “communicative as a polar bear and as frightening when aroused.” His mother was a forceful woman “who strode through my childhood like a strong-minded commander.” Both were busy and remote. Pebble, as he was known, learned life’s important lessons from the household staff. Their chauffeur Art taught him how to re-build a Model A car from the ground up and imbued in him a lifelong love of engines and work that required getting dirty.

Childhood summarily dismissed, the author moves on to his real love: boats. Ignoring his father’s wish that he enter the business world after college, he buys an old Friendship sloop, determined to sail around the world. It is when he takes it to Cumberland Island off Georgia for a rebuild that the memoir truly comes alive. The island, bought by his ancestor Thomas Carnegie, is filled with exotica, from wild horses, to relatives like his Aunt Lucy and her “house out of ‘Gone with the Wind,’” where she kept a menagerie including an ostrich and tapir, to the handyman who ran cockfights, wrestled gators and could call hawks down from trees.

Most important, it was there he experienced the “mystical evening in the spring of 1952 that changed my life” when he met his great love, children’s author Margaret Wise Brown (“Goodnight Moon,” among many others). Margaret, never married, was 16 years his senior and recovering from the death of her “dear friend” Blanche Oelrichs (wife of John Barrymore who wrote under the name Michael Strange). He describes “the instant exchange of energy” between them. They quickly got engaged and went to Maine where they had an “idyllic” sojourn at her remote cottage on Vinalhaven, which she called The Only House: “a castle of fairy story proportions … a magical habitat … that she drew round her like a cape.” After a book tour of France, she planned to join his voyage and get married.

Alas it was not to be. She died, following routine surgery in France. Devastated, he sailed to Tahiti without her.

His South Seas adventures (many of them chronicled in an earlier book, “A Man and His Island”) are less about sailing than the human flotsam he met on shore – colorful misfits and strong-willed refugees from civilization – as well as easy-going islanders. People like the “Duke of the Galapagos,” who took him turtle spearfishing by moonlight; or the self-exiled castaway of Suvorov whose life he saved through a chance encounter; last but hardly least, Stella, a Tahitian woman he fell in love with and who bore him a son.

Leaving the warmth of the South Pacific, he voyaged to Norway. Among a trove of anthropological curiosities, including Laplanders who measured distance by “coffee boils,” ate sugar soaked in ether, and routinely rustled each other’s reindeer, he fell in love with anthropologist Liv Heyerdahl (Thor’s ex-wife), married her, and brought her to The Only House, which he’d inherited. Here he had secretly been raising a bear cub as a wedding gift. The cub reacted by first eating their wedding cake and then depositing it – digested – on their nuptial bed. Sadly Liv also died young. She – and Brown – are buried behind The Only House. 

Eventually, Rockefeller settled in Camden, where he built boats and replica airplanes, co-founded the Owls Head Transportation Museum, and fell in love with Marilyn Moss (of Moss tent fame). That marriage is over 35 years old and going strong, as is Rockefeller. He gave up flying at 90 but shows no other signs of slowing down.

Despite some quibbles – Rockefeller has trouble bringing the story to a close, and tighter editing might have removed some confusing references to people and places we’ve never heard of – “Wayfarer” stands out as a vividly remembered and entertaining tale of a life lived fully, a journey in itself.

Amy MacDonald is a freelance writer and children’s author who lives in Falmouth. She can be reached at [email protected]

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