Leaving behind a life as a printer in his father’s Amsterdam print shop, a young man embarks on a journey around the Atlantic Ocean in the early 17th century.
After accidentally starting a fire while saving a young woman from two would-be rapists, Jansen Visscher disobeys his father’s wishes and runs away, boarding The Black Tulip, a privateer ship under the direction of the Dutch West India Company. Combining Jansen and other fictional characters with real-life historical figures such as Adm. Piet Heyn, the novel provides a thoroughgoing portrait of a life at sea. The Black Tulip’s mission is to capture the Spanish treasure fleet, and no shortage of naval skirmishes accompanies them on this mission. Jansen shows himself to be educated and quarrelsome, frequently questioning Piet’s orders and acting as a sort of moral compass: challenging the institution of slavery or pushing for less severe punishment of his shipmates. Amid the nautical events, Yoder (Margaret’s Print Shop, 2005) finds the most success in charting Jansen’s questioning of his decision to leave his father; he visits the print shops on islands where his fleet stops, engages in philosophical discussion, and comes to value the knowledge his father and others in the trade represent. To be sure, Yoder errs on the historical side of historical fiction. While the research behind the novel is beyond reproach, Yoder is less adept at providing an engaging narrative encapsulated by that history. Too often the story confuses information with emotional depth—the reader knows an awful lot about these characters, but feeling their motivations is less likely. Often, clichéd passages—“He had earned his sea legs,” Yoder says of Jansen early in the book, “but the ground under his feet gave him a sense of reassurance”—stand in for what might be more engaging writing, telling readers what’s going on without inviting them to feel it alongside the characters.
A middling seafaring adventure in need of characters with more depth to make this intriguing history connect with readers.