Book Review: The Curse of Oak Island by Randall Sullivan

Title: The Curse of Oak Island

Author: Randall Sullivan

Publisher:  Atlantic Monthly Press

Publication Date: December 11, 2018

Genres: Non-Fiction


As much a book of mythology and storytelling as one of history and mystery, The Curse of Oak Island is the perfect companion piece for those of us who watch the show and wonder at the details beneath the narrative. There's a reason the show is one of the highest rated original programs on cable TV, but there's only so much they can cover in a season, and the recaps (often of previous recaps) add to the challenge.

There's a reason Randall Sullivan subtitled his book The Story of the World’s Longest Treasure Hunt, and 223 years of treasure hunting is a massive story to be explored.

While there are many ways he could have approached the subject matter, Sullivan chooses to move chronologically through the searchers, hunters, and diggers, painting a vivid picture of an island riddled with as many holes as theories. You don't really get a sense of the damage done in watching the show, but reading how each search built on the one before it, it's almost overwhelming. For every hole or tunnel talked about on the show, there are a dozen others running through the island.

Speaking of damage, Sullivan doesn't withhold his criticism of the extensive damage done by Robert Dunfield, reshaping the landscape so brutally that the Province of Nova Scotia considered putting an end to the treasure hunt and turning the island into a nature preserve. He also doesn't shy away from the fact that Fred Nolan deliberately removed or destroyed key markers, consigning those details to memories lost with his passing, and a veritable treasure trove of surveying maps that may never see the light of day. That's not to say that Sullivan indulges in judgmental sensationalism, just that he's a little more forthcoming and a little less cautious than the cast and crew.

Although the book is very closely tied to the show, as evidenced by the History logo on the cover, it is not merely a promotional vehicle for the next season. Sullivan reveals some interesting warts about the production, even going so far as to acknowledge that "both of the Lagina brothers were nagged by the suspicion that the maravedi [found in the swamp in the first season finale] had been planted at the Mercy Point by the producers of The Curse of Oak Island." It was a key moment in the search, turning a one-and-done season into an ongoing series, and while Sullivan defends the producers, it's interesting that he calls it out. He also talks of other moments where theories were abandoned, details pushed aside, and entire conversations left on the cutting room floor, all to pursue something more ratings-worthy. It's not just the producers who have an agenda, however, but cast members who don't like having facts get in the way of their own pet theories, as Sullivan found one when trying to dissuade Marty from the theory of Marie Antoinette’s jewels.

"One more time, I reminded myself that I would accomplish more on Oak Island by listening than I would by sharing my opinions."

If you watch the show, then you know it is as much about personalities as it is mysteries, and that's where The Curse of Oak Island holds some of its biggest surprises. For instance, we learn more about the Restall family, turning an already sad story into something truly tragic, and we get some insights into who the Lagina brothers are, how they made their fortune, and what brought them to the island. Even more importantly, though, we get the full story of the feud between Fred Nolan and Dan Blankenship, a story of shady deals, backstabbing, violent threats, obstruction, legal persecution, and ruined reputations. Coming away from those chapters, you finally understand the depth of their enmity for one another, and appreciate just how significant their cooperation with the Lagina brothers ultimately was. Dan Henskee gets some interesting page time as well, but I'll come back to him later.

Of course, most people will be reading this for the legends, the history, and the mythology of the treasure, hoping to see their favorite theory advanced, or their least favorite debunked. While some of those chapters can become a bit dry in the reading, Sullivan goes all out in researching the facts, presenting a fair, unbiased view of what is possible versus what is plausible. He is honest about which theories he was most interested in as a writer, and which fascinated him most during his time on the island, but he gives the big ones - Pirates, the Knights Templar, Sir Francis Bacon, the Masons - equal time, pointing out what makes them plausible, but never shying away from picking at what makes them unlikely. Along the way he passes some very harsh judgment on key figures who have appeared on the show, most notably Kathleen McGowan, a "derivative author," and Joan Harris, "who married delusions of grandeur to extreme gullibility."

To get back to Dan Henskee, the entire last chapter is devoted to him, all starting with the question of whether the island is really cursed. While Sullivan casts Dan in a favorable light, as a quiet, loyal, knowledgeable man who "sometimes struggled to express himself," that final chapter explores his “two nervous breakdowns” . . . or “spiritual experiences” that followed his one-and-only experience holding Dan Blankenship's dowsing rod. It is an odd chapter, talking of ghosts, atmosphere, psychics, darkness, palatable evil, and equipment malfunctions that go far beyond anything ever jokingly acknowledged on the show, but an interesting one. It puts a personal touch on the island itself, not just the treasure hunt, and it ends with one of my favorite quotes in the book, courtesy of Dan Blankenship who says of the unknown souls who directed the original work on Oak Island:

“Sometimes,” he told me, “you begin to believe that they understood exactly what they were doing to us, and you start to despise the sons of bitches.”

The Curse of Oak Island is a much longer book than I expected, and a much deeper book than I could have hoped for, required reading for anybody with an interest in the hunt, the mystery, and the personalities involved. It does a lot of debunking, and calls out the Dan Brown-ing of history by theorists who build fictions on top of facts, selecting details that fit their theories and ignoring others, but Sullivan also does something vitally important - he justifies the whole treasure hunt, making a case for there being something significant buried below, while discrediting the idea that the original searchers found all that there was to find.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

My sincere thanks to the author for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.