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Fiction Action & Adventure

The Stowaway

by (author) Robert Hough

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Dec 2004
Action & Adventure, Suspense, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Dec 2004
    List Price

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The Stowaway is at once a thrilling maritime adventure and a thought-provoking morality tale based on real-life events. The novel begins in the spring of 1996 when Rodolfo Miguel, a bosun on the Taiwanese container ship Maersk Dubai, discovers a hungry and frightened pair of Romanian stowaways. He presents them to his officers, fully expecting that they’ll be put to work or else dropped off at the nearest port. Instead, he and his fellow Filipino crewmen watch in silent horror as the Romanians are cast overboard in a flimsy raft only to disappear beneath the ship’s wake.

The Stowaway moves seamlessly between two storylines. Aboard the Maersk Dubai, Rodolfo and his crewmen must deal with the emotional trauma of what they’ve seen – as well as grapple with how to act on what they know. The atmosphere on the ship grows increasingly tense as fear, anxiety and paranoia grip the Filipino sailors. Trapped witnesses to a crime, they wonder whom they can trust and whether they themselves will meet with the same fate as the stowaways.

Meanwhile, a nineteen-year-old Romanian named Daniel Pacepa heads out on a nail-biting adventure from Bucharest to Algeciras. Poor, brave and full of youthful indiscretion, Daniel is desperate to stow away on a ship and head to a better life in America. Along the way, he meets another Romanian named Gheorghe and together they perform cheap labour, pose as evangelical Christians and do whatever it takes to find their way to the Spanish port of Algeciras.

Eventually the two stories merge when Daniel and Gheorghe sneak onto the ill-fated Maersk Dubai. One man is killed, the other discovered by Rodolfo. Once again, the Filipino crewmen find themselves faced with an excruciating moral dilemma. Do they risk their own personal safety to save the life of a complete stranger?

All of the scenes involving the Filipino sailors are as close to the truth as Robert Hough could manage based on exhaustive interviews with the crewmen as well as on their letters and journals. Though Hough invented the Romanians’ land adventure, he based the story on considerable research, including interviews with Romanian-Canadians who had lived under the Ceausescu regime.

Hough was widely praised for the deft way in which he mixes fact and fiction in The Stowaway. The critics were also unanimous in their admiration for the novel’s ability to seduce with suspense while at the same time posing profound issues for the reader to ponder. “This is a powerful novel that artfully combines the vivid, breathless pacing of the best adventure stories with the moral and metaphysical depth of the best literary fiction,” said Quill & Quire. And from the Vancouver Sun: “Harnessing the force of fiction and the weight of history, Hough has created a powerful, deeply human masterpiece out of tragedy and inhumanity.”

About the author

Robert Hough has been published to rave reviews in fifteen territories around the world. He is the author of The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (Vintage Canada, 2002), shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book and the Trillium Book Award; The Stowaway (Vintage Canada, 2004), one of the Boston Globe’s top ten fiction titles of 2004; The Culprits (Vintage Canada, 2008); Dr. Brinkley’s Tower (House of Anansi, 2012), shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for fiction and longlisted for the Giller Prize; The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan (House of Anansi, 2015), a finalist for the Trillium Book Award; and Diego’s Crossing (Annick Press, 2015), shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award. Hough lives in Toronto, ON.

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Excerpt: The Stowaway (by (author) Robert Hough)


A knocking comes at the door of the bosun’s cabin, followed by a hoarse whisper, seeping through metal.

“Hey, Bose, time to get up.”

Rodolfo Miguel stirs. His nickname is called again, and this time he mutters, “All right, Manuel, I’m awake.” Beneath him, the big ship undulates, and produces the hollow groan of a hull on water.

The grey shrouding his quarters could be the light of early day, or the shadow of late afternoon, or the portent of a storm, and for a moment the bosun feels confused. Yet as his dreams dissipate, his situation crystallizes — morning shift, containers on board, early March, the weather brisk and overcast. He rises, rubs his eyes, and lowers himself to his knees, his forearms resting on crumpled bedding. For the next minute he is still, and alone, with God.

When he’s finished his prayers, he changes into dark blue coveralls, straightens his bunk, and puts on the deck shoes he always leaves on a mat outside his cabin door. After crossing the corridor to the WC, he washes his round face and brushes his teeth and combs his thick, dark hair. Back in his cabin, he checks himself in the small plastic-framed mirror tacked over his dresser; in the weak light of the room, his skin looks coppery and dull, like a bell that’s been exposed to weather.

He locks his cabin door and moves quickly through the halls of the seamen’s level before reaching the stairs leading to the crew mess. When he enters, only two of his able-bodies, Manuel and Angel, are still there, lingering over coffee, smiling at their bosun’s predeliction for sleeping until the last possible moment. Manuel rises, and sits when Rodolfo motions with his hand.

Rodolfo helps himself to food turned lukewarm in the service line — eggs, toast, strips of bacon shrivelled into corkscrews — and he pours himself coffee, flavouring it with cream and spoonfuls of sugar. When he sits, Manuel and Angel are taking deep, final pulls off their cigarettes, the air between them a wispy, corroded blue.

“So,” Angel says, “what’s it going to be like today?”

“Can’t say.”

“Maybe a storm?”


“It could clear, too.”

Rodolfo shrugs, and chews his breakfast. After a minute, Angel stands and heads toward the deck. Manuel says, “More coffee, Bose?” and when Rodolfo shakes his head, the AB rises as well, Rodolfo noticing the fine tremour in Manuel’s fingers as he pushes his chair back into place. Often, Rodolfo worries about Manuel’s health, for he knows he eats poorly, and smokes too much, and takes thing too seriously. As he walks away — “See you on deck, Bose” — Rodolfo asks himself how many voyages he’s been on with Manuel. Has it been a half-dozen? More? At times he feels as though he knows Manuel’s face better than the faces of his own children. At least with Manuel, he’s more or less the same every time we land on a boat together. But with my babies? Each time I come home, they’re different. Each time I come home, they’ve changed.

He swallows a mouthful of egg, and calls out, “Okay, okay. Tell the others I’ll be there in a minute.”

Rodolfo drains his coffee, and takes a last bit of bacon before scraping the remnants of his breakfast into a metal can lined with a green garbage bag. He heads to the deck. There, he spots his Taiwanese chief officer, who is slowly practising karate moves as he waits. When the officer hears footsteps, he stops, his hands momentarily suspended in the air.

“Chief,” Rodolfo says, “sorry to be late.”

“Don’t worry. Is happen, Bosun. Is happen sometime.”

“Yes, yes, with some more than other, no, Chief?”

The chief officer smiles, a lattice of creases extending from the corner of each eye. “The weather, maybe is bad today.”

“Yes. Maybe. But could clear, also.”

“You are know what to do today?”

Rodolfo nods.


The two men chat in poor English for a minute more. When they part, the chief officer returns to the door of the accommodation, and takes the stairs back up to the bridge. From where he stands, Rodolfo can hear the man’s footfalls resonating from within the stairwell.

Rodolfo’s ABs have gathered next to the storeroom, where they are smoking cigarettes and huddling against the brisk, salty wind; when Rodolfo arrives, they are discussing whether the clouds will fade into streaks, or darken further and produce a chilled, spitting rain.

“Well, Bose?” one of them asks. “What are we doing?”

Rodolfo smiles, as though the question were a joke — they’ve been doing the same job since the voyage began in Bombay, and they all know they’ll be grinding, stripping, and sanding the deck. All five of the ABs groan, throw up their hands, and jokingly complain. Then they dig out their sanders and head to the starboard aft, where they’d left off the day before.

Rodolfo begins his tour of the deck. As always, he starts with the starboard side, his eyes sweeping the metal surfaces of the Maersk Dubai. He checks that the container lassos are tightly winched, and as he passes the various hydraulic systems — hatch covers, windlass, mooring — he looks for rivulets of leaking motor oil. At the bow of the ship, he considers checking the void tank levels via the sounding tubes that reach to the depths of the hull, but decides not to — despite the choppiness of the ocean, and the intermittent listing of the past few days, there’s no reason to suspect any of the holds have taken on water.

Instead, he moves to the port side and leans against the gunwale. The air is heavy with ozone. There are whitecaps and swells. The clouds are low-lying, full, and the grey-blue of a rifle. Rodolfo blinks away the salted mist, and peers far into the distance, to the place where the eye plays tricks on a sailor far from home — though there is nothing but ocean for thousands of kilometres, he imagines he can see an ochre sweep of hill and valley, and a yawning of off-white beach. He begins his tour back down the port side. The boat shifts and heaves beneath his feet, his sea legs responding in a way that is automatic, and not noticed by the sailor. Behind him, over the stern, comes a momentary break in the clouds. A shaft of sunlight, bleary and cream coloured, casts shadows for the first time since the big ship left Spain, momentarily warming the bosun’s shoulders. Then, just as quickly, the clouds reassemble, and the greyness of the day returns.

Editorial Reviews

“A powerful, deeply human masterpiece.”
—The Vancouver Sun
“This is a powerful novel that artfully combines the vivid, breathless pacing of the best adventure stories with the moral and metaphysical depth of the best literary fiction.”
Quill and Quire, Feb. 2004
"The Stowaway is a terrific contemporary sea-story. It resonates with the great themes of maritime literature and reminds us that the sea is, even now, an arena of suffering and high courage and a crucible of moral choice. The story of murder, fear and redemption aboard the "Maersk Dubai" comes vividly alive in this fine, compelling novel."
—Derek Lundy, author of The Way of a Ship and Godforsaken Sea
Praise for The Final Confession of Mabel Stark:
“Robert Hough pulls together fact and fiction to unfurl a life that invites sheer, slack-jawed fascination.”

“Never flagging, the compelling story thunders along like a runaway circus train bearing a dangerous cargo of painful memory, wild animals, grotesque characters and outlandish stories, all told through the distinctive, often humorous, voice Hough creates for his protagonist.”
The Globe and Mail

“The frame story . . . is reminiscent of both The Stone Angel and The Stone Diaries. . . . Mabel Stark is a bold and remarkable literary creation.”
The Vancouver Sun

“This is one of the most enjoyable and involving first novels that I have read in years. . . . Mabel Stark is the first heroine I’ve fallen in love with for a long time.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

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