ON THE SPUR OF SPEED by J.E. Fender

ON THE SPUR OF SPEED

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In which patriotic swabbies do their bit for the American Revolution, and practically everyone talks like Robert Newton in Treasure Island.

Fender joins the tale of master mariner Geoffrey Frost to that of his younger brother Joseph in this, the fourth volume of his Frost Saga (Our Lives, Our Fortunes, 2004, etc.). Both do a lot of time on the waves here. Fender flashes back to Geoffrey’s life as an apprentice seaman just barely ten years old, charting his growth as a sailor and as a nascent abolitionist sadly hooked up with the slave trade. Alternating chapters detail the adventures of grown-up Joseph, who himself is bailed out of trouble more than once by a faithful African-American sidekick. Geoffrey, for his part, has acquired book larnin’ along the way; he speaks a prissy manner of English (“I pray the real pleasure of knowing your name,” “I am marvelously keen on whistling, and believe I do a capital job of it”) until his fellow sailors, we imagine, beat the tar into him, so to speak, at which point his subject matter if not elocution toughens up and he learns to wield dirk and flintlock. Benedict Arnold, the American commander who heads the ragtag expeditionary force in which Joseph finds himself, also speaks a nicely rounded English, if his choice of topics is sometimes a little odd: “Milk be damned as a beverage good only for babes and the doddering.” And, oh, the babes: Fender insinuates a steamy scene or two that will make those brought up on a diet of Johnny Tremain blush (“ ‘Carnally,’ ” Hannah fairly purred, ‘that be quite a word, but nevertheless I ken its meaning’ ”). Anticlimax follows climax as Joseph and company are blown out of the water at the great naval battle on Lake Champlain; dazed and confused, he wanders without memory to Fort Ticonderoga, where, we imagine, Geoffrey will find him come the next installment and pep him up for some payback on the redcoats.

Competent, but no match for the grander sagas of near-contemporary warriors Aubrey, Sharpe and Hornblower—or Tremain, for that matter.

Pub Date: April 29th, 2005
ISBN: 1-58465-475-9
Page count: 352pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2005