Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Dark Frigate

I decided to read the 1924 Newbery winner about a 17th century boy's adventures with "gentlemen of fortune" (pirates!) because I love Patrick O'Brian's naval stories (Master and Commander, Post Captain, and the other nineteen books in the series). And Charles Boardman Hawes' descriptive passages, like this one about the 'dark frigate', were everything I could have hoped for:
Such a ship as the Rose of Devon frigate, standing out for the open sea, is a sight the world no longer affords....their lofty poops, their little bonaventure masts, their lateen sails aft, their high forecastles and tall bowsprits with the square spritsail flaunted before the fiddlehead, came down from an even earlier day; for the Rose of Devon had been an ancient craft when King James died and King Charles succeeded to the throne.
And then there's this interchange:
At that Phil bustled up and laid hand on his dirk. "Good morrow, I say. Hast no tongue between thy teeth?"

The fellow hugged his book the tighter and frowned the darker and fiercely shook his head. "Never," he cried, "was a man assaulted with such diversity of thoughts! Yet here must come a lobcock lapwing and cry 'Good morrow!' I will have you know I am one to bite sooner than to bark."

Already he was striding at a furious gait, yet now giving a hitch to his mighty book, he made shift to lengthen his stride and go yet faster.

Unhindered by any such load, Phil pressed at his heels."'A lobcock'? 'A lapwing'?" he cried. "Thou puddling quacksalver - "

Stopping short and giving him a look of dark resentment, the fellow sadly shook his head. "That was a secret and most venomous blow."
So. As much as I loved the archaic language (and especially the insults), the style of writing in The Dark Frigate was occasionally overwhelming. It was definitely a "read a chapter every few days" type of book, not a "oh my gosh I must find out what happened to this kid in the next chapter" book. I don't think my ten year old would enjoy reading this on his own, though he might enjoy having it read to him (hmmm, I wonder if this is available on a cd or podcast?), especially with the right narrator.

Anyway, I started TDF several weeks ago, but couldn't resist picking up (and finishing) Holes and The Higher Power of Lucky (and the non-YA March, by Geraldine Brooks) during the amount of time it took me to read The Dark Frigate. And it wasn't just because of the language.

The main character, 19 year old Philip Marsham, is interesting enough, and the plot is pretty good, but despite the wonderful descriptions of ships, the English countryside, and the people in these places, I had a hard time caring much about most of the other people in the book. They were either wholly unlikable (like "the Old One", the captain of the pirates) or their interaction with Phil wasn't developed enough for me (as with Will Canty, a shipmate friend). This is where TDF just didn't live up to my perhaps unreasonably high expectations from Patrick O'Brian.

he Dark Frigate might be a pretty good movie, though. I wonder who would play Phil? I don't picture him as anything like this old cover.

As a final note - it's good to have Google on hand to understand things like this passage near the end:
If this were a mere story to while away an idle hour, I, the scribe, would tie neatly every knot and leave no Irish pennants hanging from my work. But life, alas, is no pattern drawn to scale. The many interweaving threads are caught up in strange tangles, and over them, darkly and inscrutably, Atropos presides.


Sandy D. said...

Trivia about the author: Charles Boardman Hawes died at age 34, just before TDF was published. His wife accepted the award for him. So far, Hawes is the only person to receive a posthumous award.

Sandy D. said...

And given that Hawes died suddenly after writing that passage, that bit about Atropos (the Fate that cuts your life thread off) is a bit ominous.

Anonymous said...

I brought the Dark Frigate home for my boys to read, and began myself...personally I loved it and was eager to pick up The Mutineers Hawes' one other novel...even better! These are the types of novels our children should be reading - forget Harry Potter, he's no one's hero!