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  • Writer's pictureRuth Rotkowitz


On Sunday, August 23rd, while casually leafing through the Arizona Republic newspaper, a headline for a book review grabbed my eye. The book was entitled Shark Attacks of the Jersey Shore: A History by Patricia and Robert Heyer. Reading this review brought back memories of the 38 years I lived in New Jersey. That is because one of the shark attacks discussed in the book and mentioned in the review, which may be the most famous shark attack ever, took place in the summer of 1916 in the New Jersey town of Matawan. Matawan – the small town where we lived.  An inland town. A town with no ocean access. A shark attack there?!  How shocking and incredible is that?

Our township was Old Bridge but our mailing address was Matawan, so there was a bit of an identity crisis involved in living there. But anyone who has ever lived in the Matawan zip code is familiar with this incident as it is part of local lore.  

Of course, there have been a few shark attacks at some of the Jersey beach areas. In fact, shark attacks resulting in fatalities occurred in the beach towns of Spring Lake and Beach Haven several days before the Matawan event, giving credence to the theory that it was the same shark. There is still debate over the type of shark it was. Some believe it was a juvenile Great White; others believe it was a Bull Shark. Somehow, this shark found its way from the ocean to this creek. 

Two people died in the Matawan attack – an 11-year old boy and a 24-year old man who tried to rescue him. The boy’s friends, who were all swimming in the Matawan Creek together, tried to save him and then ran for help, but no one believed them that a shark would be in the creek. 

Seeing this article now was a stroke of irony for me. In my novel ESCAPING THE WHALE, my protagonist, Marcia Gold, harbors many fears, One of her fears, manifested most intensely when she goes to a Mexican beach resort for a vacation that she hopes will relieve her anxieties, is that dangerous sharks will emerge from the ocean and attack people on land. She even imagines that a surfer she spies from her balcony might go too far out and be attacked. The mysterious and usually unseen creatures of the deep reflect many of Marcia’s fears and paranoid delusions. In the novel, the ocean is a symbol for the fears and dangers we cannot see, both in the external and internal world. The shark, known for its ruthless, predatory nature, represents these hidden dangers.

Ironically, in my research, I discovered that before the 1916 series of shark attacks in New Jersey, scientists believed that sharks were harmless and would not attack humans. After these terrible attacks, the world of science changed its tune regarding sharks, and shark scares became common. In fact, the book Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974) was supposedly inspired by these attacks, and the book in turn became the inspiration for the Steven Spielberg movie Jaws (1975).

Even more ironic than my use of the shark as a symbol of Marcia’s fears is the fact that I am currently working on a prequel to ESCAPING THE WHALE. In several book discussions, readers have asked for some information on Marcia’s background and upbringing, and this has inspired me to embark on a prequel. In a scene I had recently written for   the prequel, Marcia’s family, who reside in Brooklyn, New York, is invited to visit a cousin who bought a house in Matawan. There had been television specials about the shark attacks and Marcia, who is 19 at the time, remembers the name Matawan being mentioned. She researches the town name and reads about the attacks. Even though they occurred in 1916, she refuses to go on this visit. She is terrified of being in a town where this had occurred.

Her family thinks she is being ridiculous, as the event happened so long ago. The shark in question, it is believed, accessed the Matawan Creek from the Atlantic via Raritan Bay. Even though her parents find out and inform her that the creek had been dammed up since then, she is not reassured and is convinced it can happen again. Maybe the shark will even be able to jump out of the creek and travel through the town, right into their cousin’s new backyard, where they will all be lounging around and enjoying a barbecue?! Anything could happen! 

I hope this incident in the prequel will put Marcia’s problems in ESCAPING THE WHALE into context. What coincidence – my seeing the article shortly after writing this scene about the Matawan shark!

The mysteries of the ocean are a source of fascination. The undersea world is filled with beauty and wonder. Marcia’s little nephew Matthew in ESCAPING THE WHALE relishes learning about unusual fish, and this is a reminder of how amazing fish can be.  But the ocean is recognized as a symbol of the unconscious, and the shark is a personification of a most frightening and destructive power. Marcia latches on to this animal as the representation of her fears, and the prequel will show how this mental association began for her.

It was interesting to discover that tourists used to flock to Matawan to see the site of the attacks. There were even a few shark festivals in the town, but there were objections to that and the practice was discontinued. There seems to be a discomfort with the appropriate way to commemorate this unusual event. That is understandable. It’s a story of friendship, loyalty, and communal caring. It is also a story of misguided dismissal of warnings and calls for help. Last but not least, it is a story of the unpredictability of Nature. 

I hope that message about Nature – the natural world as well as human nature – comes across in both my novel and its prequel.


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