Friday, September 11, 2009

The Dark Frigate, 1924

There will be no piracy here. Curb your Arrrs and your mateys. Remove your daggers and hooks, your parrots and eye-patches. Stop prancing around on that wooden leg. The Dark Frigate reveals the sordid side of piracy: selfishness reigns, boastfulness passes for courage, and the gallows awaits.

Philip Marsham is raised at sea and set for a sailor’s life. But pirates overcome The Rose of Devon, and Phil finds himself forced into an outlaw existence. Should he serve the pirate captain, the shrewd man they call the Old One? In so doing, he would betray his country and risk death in a hundred ignominious ways. Should he seek help? By escaping and turning himself in to the authorities, he may be hanged. In fact, Philip cannot escape; on the open sea there are few choices. Life on the “dark frigate” is dark indeed.

At first, The Dark Frigate was a hard slog. After the sweet candidness of The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and the lively forthrightness of The Higher Power of Lucky, I was lost in the foreign world of England under King Charles I. And, in truth, the book is a slow starter. But once those pirates crept on board, I was drawn in as helplessly as Phil Marsham.

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be pirates.

In this day and age, we play with the notion of pirates. And why not? They have been romanticized into free-spirited heroes—wild enough to bring fear to the hearts of stuffy old men and stuffy old countries, but essentially loyal, relatively benign, and even honorable in their way. Besides, they just dress so well.

But piracy is a dreadful thing, and I appreciate that The Dark Frigate does not cast a glowing eye on such a career. Though some of the pirate crew are wise and loyal—and the Old One could match the bravery of any man—for the most part we find a host of dull-witted, strutting cowards. These men are gluttons and drunkards, egged on by promises of gold, wine, women, and palaces in the tropics. Rash in their actions and quick to complain, their own lack of discipline bungles many of their efforts.

Yet the author wisely does not paint all pirates in this color. The Old One, fearsome as he is, possesses a wit and courage that give Philip Marsham (and the reader) pause. Harry Malcolm is sea-wise and loyal. Jacob (one of the book’s most intriguing characters) owns an intelligence that could have been shaped to a much better purpose.

I also appreciate that the author paints clearly the choices of those in the grip of piracy. When The Rose of Devon is taken, the remaining crew have two choices: serve or die. Life at sea is as much a prison as it is a place of freedom.

What, this a Newbery?

Forget one little word in The Higher Power of Lucky. What’s “scrotum” on the first page of Lucky compared to the first chapter of The Dark Frigate, where our hero accidentally fires a gun, injures a “fat man,” breaks open a barrel of wine, and gets run out of town? In the third chapter, two drunken sailors brawl until one pulls a knife on the other. And then there are the pirates, who kill their victims and each other. This book wins an award for young adult literature? Bad Newbery book! Bad!

Yet just as the word scrotum can teach us to be inquisitive, guns and drink and all manner of shady characters with knives can teach us about honor, strength, and wisdom. In The Dark Frigate, what prevails is principle. The pirates’ lawless self-interest falls at the feet of a disciplined, law-abiding crew. The protagonist, young Philip, has to tread the line of right and wrong and find his own way. And choosing the right may cost him his life.

“A lobock?” “A lapwing?” “Thou puddling quacksalver—”

What did you just call me? One initial obstacle to my reading was the language. On land, I wandered through antiquated vocabulary and (to my sense) pompously contrived constructions. At sea, I floated helplessly in nautical terminology: “Cast off the topsail sheets, clew garnets, leechlines and buntlines!” (page 86) Anyone reading this book today has to wade through a slough of words—and in the beginning it is very hard going! I had to persist, let a lot of sentences slip through my grasp, in the interest of adhering to the plot. The writing style is a barrier, but the story is rewarding.

And the writing does win its share of triumphs. I even have some favorite quotes:

“Our ship is the Porcupine ketch and our quills are set.” (p 133)

“We know what we know; there be those who come toward us with their feet, but go from us with their hearts.” (p 138)

“But although he changed his manner as fast and often as light flickers on running water, under the surface there flowed a strong, even current of liking or ill will, as sooner or later all men that had dealings with him must learn, some to their wonder and some to their sorrow.” (p 124)

In conclusion

The Dark Frigate is a great adventure and a worthy, if unexpected, Newbery winner. To my surprise, I was reluctant to return the book to the library. I would like to read it again and feel again that sense of adventure.

. . .

Boardman Hawes, Charles. (1971) The Dark Frigate, decorations by Warren Chappell. An Atlantic Monthly Press Book; Little, Brown and Company, Boston. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 77-117023.

[Also posted at Karen edits.]


Sandy D. said...

I love those quotes.

You need to read the 20+ Patrick O'Brian nautical adventures, they're a great help when it comes to sails and rigging and guns and the like. :-)

J-rad said...

I'm with you on being lost at sea. I listened to the book on CD and found it much easier to get throught the tricky language. Not because I understood it, but because someone who knew how to say it was reading and I could infer a lot more of the meaning. Plus, if it was completely over my head the reader kept going and I never felt like I missed anything.

Amanda (the librarian) said...

Great review; makes me want to read this book!