Fred Hill, right, and Alex Hill discuss the hundreds of nearly 140-year-old letters they referenced while writing “A Flick of Sunshine” on 5/26. John Terhune / The Times Record

“Can’t Kill Will!” read the headline in the Bath Independent on Feb. 7, 1885. “Another escape for Jackson.”

Richard Willis Jackson was not yet 24 when the Bath paper reported his near-drowning during a voyage to Liverpool, England, but the young sailor was already a local celebrity for his many brushes with death. He’d survived a lightning strike, a dive into a partially frozen pond to rescue a younger boy and a nine-month marooning in the Marshall Islands.

Now, well over a century after Will Jackson’s luck finally ran out, a father and son team have granted him a fitting honor: immortal life as the subject of their book, “A Flick of Sunshine.”

“I know you’ll know what to do with this,” Fred Hill remembers his mother telling him in 1977 when she sent him a collection of several hundred letters written by Jackson, her uncle.

Hill, then a Paris correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, didn’t have time to write Jackson’s story, but he saw the value – and the fragility – of the nearly 100-year-old letters, which were mostly written in pencil. He and his son Alex, a middle school student, worked together to copy the letters’ contents for posterity.

But aside from Alex Hill’s ninth grade essay titled, “My Great Uncle’s Adventures,” Jackson’s story remained untold for decades. Only after Fred Hill retired to Bath in 2006 and began writing books like “Ships, Swindlers, and Scalded Hogs,” which details the history of one of Maine’s greatest shipbuilders, did he turn his attention back to Jackson.


About five years ago, Alex Hill decided to join his father in writing “A Flick of Sunshine,” which he said was an intimidating undertaking for a rookie author working in financial technology.

“It took me a while,” said Hill, who lives in California. “I’d have to just come home and sit down and focus on getting it started. But once I got going, collaborating with my dad was really fun.”

The pair used Jackson’s letters, his diary, a book he helped write and archival newspaper articles to track his journey from gregarious Bath high school student to the youngest crew member of the 233-foot ship Rainier, a job that paid him $12 per month.

Christopher Timm of the Maritime Museum, ccenter, poses Alex and Fred Hill who plan to donate Jackson’s letters to the museum.

While the pay was low, even by 1883 standards, Jackson earned a rich bounty of adventure, from a near run-in with the erupting Krakatoa to his marooning on the Marshall Islands after the Rainier crashed on its way to Hyogo, Japan.

“He knew that he’d find a day to work things out,” Alex Hill said of his great-great-uncle, who spent his days on the Marshall Islands fishing with the natives and endlessly reading an almanac that had survived the shipwreck.  “He was very much an optimist. It seems like he never really got that down or frustrated.”

That same optimism powered Jackson’s descendants during two years of research and writing, endless hours of cross-country phone calls and lengthy publication delays related to the pandemic, according to Fred Hill. “A Flick of Sunshine,” named after a line from a Joseph Conrad story, hit shelves in sellers like Mockingbird Bookshop in Bath and Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick in March.

Like their ancestor before them, Fred and Alex Hill are already charting their next adventure. They’re currently written about a third of a novel about lobster wars in Maine.

“It’s about the collision between clans,” Fred Hill said. “I’m not telling you any more about it, because I’m afraid someone will steal it.”

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