A thick sheaf of nonfictions—“essays” is a slight misnomer—all but two from earlier collections by novelist Connell (Deus Lo Volt!, 2000, etc.).
Just as he rang brilliant changes on military history in Son of the Morning Star (1984), Connell here takes the essay form and jams into it stories from history, snippets of legend, and odd bits of chronicle. If there is a feeling that runs through the pieces, it is one of boyish adventure. Several concern the Spanish conquistadors’ colonization of Mexico and South America, but there are stories about Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, the 13th-century Children’s Crusade (which left even contemporary observers baffled), and the origins of the Atlantis legend. In no case is Connell’s interest pedagogic; he never seeks a moral to his stories and seems motivated by simple wonder more than scholarly puzzlement. Though the writer occasionally hints at a contemporary relevance to his tales of derring-do, there is a stronger antiquarian streak, a love of detail for its own sake. Fortunately, Connell has an acute eye, and it is undoubtedly marvelous to learn that a typical breakfast on Scott’s voyage consisted of “tea and pemmican flavored with seal blubber, penguin feathers, and hair from the sleeping bags.” Another piece, about a Swedish dreadnought that sunk a mile offshore during its maiden voyage, describes the sundial, carved mermaids, and apothecary’s kit that rescuers found 300 years later as “unexpected and beautiful and wondrous.” In the same way, part of Connell’s purpose here is simply to drag into the light treasures that had been unjustly left rotting in the dark: he rescues brilliant fragments from the tides and trends of history.
Whatever they are, these pieces exude a rare spirit that delights to find the marvelous in the actual.