In 1757, a group of Irish immigrants spends two months crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard the sailing ship The Royal Duchess, heading for Virginia with hopes for a better future.
Long’s debut historical novel recounts the trans-Atlantic passage of John Holmes and his brother Robert, who leave their Presbyterian family—and the poverty and religious discrimination of Ireland—for the “opportunity to own land, and prosper, and most especially worship God in our own way without restriction or government interference in our lives.” It is an excited band of passengers on this mostly joyful crossing to the English Colonies. Children romp on the deck of the vessel, and the captain, Michael Mears, is committed to making the journey as pleasant as possible, even organizing dancing on Saturday evenings to keep up morale. Most of the passengers purchased their tickets, but some, like 17-year-old Matilda Magruder, agreed to several years of indentured servitude in the Colonies as payment for the voyage. Matilda’s parents and siblings are also onboard, but they could not afford a ticket for her. John, having a degree from the University of Dublin, is looking forward to a career in teaching, and Robert anticipates opening a woodworking business. John is the enthusiastic narrator of this feel-good tale, which is a series of vignettes describing the mostly amiable daily encounters and experiences onboard The Royal Duchess. Along the way, Long paints a rich portrait of life at sea in the 18th century. Sleeping quarters are tight, and food is carefully rationed to last the two-month voyage, but there are few complaints: “A staple diet of mush or flapjacks, fish, jerky, mutton and hard biscuits; and a few apples or oranges to prevent scurvy would keep the passengers fed.” Despite one death due to illness, one frightening confrontation with a hurricane, and a collision with a whale, the tone of the prose, conveying an Irish lilt, is decidedly upbeat. But with the exception of a few action scenes (for example, during the storm), readers are likely to find their attention wandering because of a lack of narrative conflict.
More reflective and sentimental than adventurous; a quick read that includes some historically intriguing maritime details.