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An American Adventurer on Captain James Cook’s Final Expedition

by Laurie Lawlor

Age Range: 10 & up

Pub Date: Dec. 15th, 2002
ISBN: 0-8234-1575-9
Publisher: Holiday House

The experiences of an impetuous and ambitious American-born Marine serve as a focus for a compelling account of Captain James Cook’s last expedition. Cook was a national hero to the English, exploring, mapping, and claiming vast reaches of the South Seas for the Crown; his final voyage of exploration was meant to discover the fabled Northwest Passage across the top of North America. John Ledyard, feckless, footloose, and impecunious, saw this as his golden opportunity to make his name and fortune. Lawlor (Old Crump: The True Story of a Trip West, p. 337, etc.) powerfully and evocatively puts readers on deck as the expedition languishes in the tropics, moving from island to island as rapacious and syphilitic sailors wear out their welcome among the local populations; finally pushes north to Alaska and Kamchatka; retreats, disastrously, to Hawaii; and at last limps home, minus a murdered Cook. The text is peppered with excerpts from Cook’s journals, as well as those of other sailors and retrospective accounts by Ledyard and others (all rendered with 19th-century grammar and spelling intact), and handsomely illustrated with archival materials. It would be an altogether spectacular piece of writing, were it not for the lack of textual documentation. Over and over, scenes are set and emotions described with no indication of any external authority beyond the author’s own imagination. “Suddenly Cook materialized beside Anderson. The powerful . . . captain thundered an order to the boatswain. Brown eyes blazing, Cook stared into the darkness.” Which witness saw those blazing eyes in the dark? There are even snippets of dialogue recorded without attribution: “ ‘Another island!’ ‘Ice ahead!’ ‘Keep her off a little!’ ‘Steady!’ ” These and other novelistic touches move the narrative along at a terrific clip, but undermine its authority at the same time. A brief essay on sources is followed by a fairly extensive bibliography, but this is no substitute for references not made within the body of the text. This stands as such a powerfully written offering that the lack of documentation is a crying shame. (appendices, glossary, source notes, bibliography, index) (Nonfiction. 10+)