At a time when pirates are friendly and merely eccentric, a book like The Dark Frigate is welcome indeed. The buccaneers of Charles Boardman Hawes's novel are pirates in the true sense of the word: ignorant, mean, bloodthirsty, greedy, and completely without scruples of any kind.
Pirates in the 17th century were to honest Englishmen what Al-Qaeda is to modern Americans. These were men hardened by lives of deprivation at sea, cruelty, and loss, whose only concern was to avoid the hangman's noose. They killed men, women and children without compunction, and they laughed while doing it.
Hawes captures the terror of pirates and piracy with realism and sobriety. There is no romanticism here, and even the novel's protagonist, Philip Marsham, is presented as a real young man, not the sinless cherub of virtue so prevalent in children's literature of the early 20th century.
The Dark Frigate is a masterpiece, and one of the few Newbery Medal winners that truly stands far above books like it. Hawes believed the height of literature was the King James Bible and classic poetry, and he captures the language of both in his tale of pre-Civil War England and the high seas. Some may complain that the language and dialogue are too archaic, but in fact they perfectly evoke a sense of place and a mood that more contemporary dialect would have lost.
Philip Marsham, an orphan of nineteen, goes to sea aboard the Rose of Devon. When the ship is commandeered by pirates, he's forced to maintain his position as boatswain, and accompanies the pirates on a number of petty raids and fights. Many adventures eventually lead him back to England, where he must face trial as a pirate in the shadow of the gallows.
The end of the tale is satisfying, but it isn't all peaches and roses the way many adventure stories end. On one level, The Dark Frigate is the story of Marsham's growth of conscience; on another, it's the story of his journey from boyhood to manhood. As Lloyd Alexander points out in his helpful introduction, this is the real meat of the story, though the sword fights, battles, shipwrecks, and other adventures are certainly thrilling.
Apart from a couple veiled knocks against the Puritans (who are never named), there's nothing to object to here. There is violence, and some of the scenes are frightening, but if you don't want those you shouldn't be reading a pirate story. Frequent reference is made to God, His mercy, and His providence, making this one of the most politically incorrect Newbery Medal winners.
Books like this are rare. Hawes manages to cram action and adventure, historical detail, and brilliant characterizations into 250 pages, and when we read the last one we wish there were at least as many more. Whether your kids are confused about pirates or not, this is a must-have for any well-stocked home library.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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