"Tales of Historical Adventure on Land and Sea"
December 17, 2000
by Bella Stander
The enduring popularity of Robert Louis Stevenson and the success of modern writers such as Philip Pullman, Iain Lawrence and Gary Paulsen prove that despite the charms of modern electronic entertainment, there's still nothing like a good, old-fashioned adventure story to capture the imagination and stir up the blood. Here is a crop of recent offerings.
by Leon Garfield
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
For some unaccountable reason, the late Leon Garfield's four novels for young adults were allowed to go out of print after they were published in the late 1960s. Unaccountable when one considers the awards and accolades his work has received, such as this from novelist Jill Paton Walsh:
"There has never been a writer to equal Garfield for ebullient, rip-roaring, gruesome, joyful, and witty evocation of the past, and for wonderful page-turning adventure stories."
Fortunately, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has reissued Garfield's third and fourth novels, Smith and Black Jack, and reports that Footsteps and The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris will be available in the spring.
"He was called Smith and was twelve years old." So begins the tale of a filthy and illiterate London pickpocket who lifts a document from a gentleman's coat seconds before the latter is knifed by assassins. Within just a few pages, a suspenseful and intricately plotted chain of events is set in motion, with the crafty yet increasingly terrified Smith keeping one frantic step ahead of the mysterious and powerful people who want the document at all costs.
Along the way, Smith travels 18th Century London in all its sublime and fetid glory, from the alleys of Ludgate Hill to a magistrate's house to the bowels of Newgate Prison. Readers might note a passing resemblance to Oliver Twist, and indeed Smith is set on much the same turf (though perhaps a half-century earlier) with some similar characters. But Garfield has a sparer style and more ironic vision than Dickens and doesn't indulge in mawkish sentimentality or improbable, fairy-tale coincidences. Even so, after heart-pounding uncertainty, good ultimately triumphs and the evil get their just deserts--with a wry twist.
Unlike Smith, Black Jack is set within a specific time frame, beginning in London on Monday, April 14, 1749, when the hulking, eponymous character is hanged for murder. Afterward, grotesque Mrs. Gorgandy pretends to be Black Jack's widow so she can sell his body for medical research. She pulls draper's apprentice Bartholomew in off the street to sit with the corpse, only Black Jack miraculously revives and drags the 14-year-old away with him. Renamed "Nolly" by Black Jack, the youth inadvertently inspires his captor to cause a coach wreck. One of the survivors is Belle, a girl Nolly's age who was being transported to the oily Dr. Jones's madhouse. Black Jack having disappeared, Nolly takes charge of her, and they fall in with a traveling carnival, led by a saintly looking fraud, Dr. Carmody. But then Black Jack joins the carnival, too, after forming a pact with Carmody's former apprentice to return Belle to Dr. Jones, who's planning to keep her chained up like his other "patients."
Suffice it to say that a gripping blend of double- and triple-crosses, murder, mayhem, madness, romance and comedy ensues. The panorama of scenery, breadth of characterizations and historical scope are, if possible, even more dazzling here than in "Smith." Even the earthquakes of 1749 have a role.
by Karen Hesse
Although different in subject and darker in tone, Karen Hesse's re-creation of the adventures of an English youth on Capt. Cook's first South Seas voyage is just as spellbinding and filled with period details as Leon Garfield's two books.
Ship's surgeon's boy Nicholas Young, whose diary this purports to be, actually sailed with Cook and was the first of the crew to spot New Zealand in 1769, after more than a year at sea, and Land's End on the way back home two years later. Beyond his having scrawled an insult in a shipmate's diary, little is known of the real Young. Hesse makes him an 11-year-old runaway butcher's apprentice fleeing an abusive master and indifferent father. Given ship biscuit and water by three sailors he has bribed, the increasingly sick and smelly Nick hides for six weeks in a pinnace above the deck of the Endeavor and doesn't show himself till the ship is beyond Madeira headed for Brazil.
Whether it's a grim description of yet another flogging, a harrowing account of a storm at Cape Horn or a wistful desire to live with the carefree natives in Tahiti, Nick's commentary never sounds a false note. The sentence construction and sprinkling of archaic spellings and capitalizations lend this 300-page narrative even more authentic flavor. Rounding out the book for 21st Century landlubbers is an excellent glossary, as well as a list of the hardy men who sailed with Nick--many of whom never made it home again.
Battle on the High Seas
by Gerald Hausman
(Simon & Schuster)
Based in part on an 1834 best seller that influenced writers including Stevenson, this slim book pales in comparison to Stowaway. The story gets under way pleasantly enough in May 1812, with almost-13-year-old narrator Tom Cringle shipping out of Portsmouth, England, aboard the HMS Bream, set to patrol the waters around Jamaica against American privateers. In the next seven months, Tom witnesses his first sea battle, gets malaria, is shipwrecked, survives a hurricane followed by an earthquake, is rescued and impressed into service by black pirate Obediah Glasgow, escapes, falls ill again, falls in love with the daughter of a Jamaican plantation owner, is kidnapped by Glasgow, wins sword fights against seasoned British sailors and winds up a full lieutenant.
Tom's narrative unfolds at a smart pace, and no doubt many young readers will be untroubled by its modern style and improbable plot; likewise, they probably won't notice the anachronisms and inconsistencies. (Tom describes his dog as "paddle-wheeling like a steamer" even though the first paddle-wheel steamboat wasn't in Europe for another two years.) Most troubling, though, is the view of race relations. On the one hand, Gerald Hausman has Tom chirp about his uncanny closeness to the Bream's black cook and Glasgow; on the other, Tom accepts at face value the fact that the cook can't join him as a guest in the plantation's great house and instead has to eat and bunk with the slaves.
© 2000 Bella Stander