Sunday, April 05, 2009

Newbery winners III

In 1924, a book called The Dark Frigate, by Charles Boardman Hawes, won the third Newbery Medal. This week, a mere 85 years later, I read that book. And like the Ancient Mariner, I must tell my tale.

This is a pirate story set in the days just before the English Civil Wars. Philip Marsham is the son of a sailor, estranged from his wealthy grandparents and apparently living by his wits. Times are hard for a poor young man, and he sets off to sea with an unsavory character he meets on the road. Marsham makes a fine boswain, but his ship is overtaken by pirates. The kind-hearted lad is forced to sail with them for a while, then escapes only to be captured and tried with the crew

The plot is very simple, but there's more to the book than the bare-boned precis above would indicate. The book is a series of encounters in Marsham's life, and its strength lies in characterization and dialogue rather than complex twists and turns of plot.

It’s an interesting book for the historical detail (down to the quite recondite speech and arcane vocabulary) and for Hawes’ unwillingness to be trite or shallow: some characters loom large and then fade away, as in life, and the villain of the piece is given his due as a brave and clever man, true to his own principles even if he is a violent, bloody thief.

But there’s something to be said for getting drama out of heroism vs. treachery, and I felt as if Marsham was merely an observer to the tale, and not its protagonist; in that sense it compares unfavorably to the somewhat similar Kidnapped or Black Arrow, both by Robert Louis Stevenson, who knew how to craft a truly gripping adventure story.

Recommended for children: It's a decent tale, but I can’t imagine most adults, let alone children, of today reading this book with much understanding: the language is really very obscure, and some of the action bafflingly subtle.

Recommended for adults: See above. I've deliberately cultivated a very extensive vocabulary all my life; also, I was practically raised on archaic Britishisms and sea lingo thanks to my English father and British Navy uncles, and I found the speech hard to fathom at times.

No comments: