In early 1770s Colonial America, a young sailor’s promising sailing career is derailed as colonists clash with their British rulers in Spilman’s (The Shantyman, 2015, etc.) latest historical novel.
When the captain of the brig Mary Ellen dies at sea, 16-year-old Thomas Larkin is the only man onboard who knows how to navigate, so it’s up to him to bring them safely home into Boston harbor. It’s no easy feat, and his success gets him noticed by the ship’s owner, John Brown, who offers him a position as chief mate on a vessel bound for the Indies. But as he celebrates the job offer with his friend John Stevens in a local tavern, he’s unexpectedly impressed into the British Royal Navy—kidnapped and forced to serve onboard the man-of-war HMS Romney, under the command of the cruel Lt. William Dudingston. Determined to help his young friend escape, Stevens enlists voluntarily, and he and Larkin eventually make a daring break for the Dutch island of St. Eustatius during a hurricane. Meanwhile, tensions mount between the British and the American colonists as the latter grow more outraged by the injustice of impressment, corrupt customs officials, and oppressive taxes. Larkin finds himself embroiled in his countrymen’s fight as he plans revenge on Lt. Dudingston. Meanwhile, he also pursues Brown’s lovely daughter, Angela. Spilman’s prose is vivid and assured: “The air swirled with a maelstrom of smells—of tar and drying cod, coffee, tobacco, and horse manure, rum, chamber pots, cooking and low tide.” His depth of research shows on every page, yet it never feels as if he’s showing off. Larkin’s shipboard life of jibs and mizzenmasts and fo’c’sles is ordinary to him, and in Spilman’s hands, such nautical details never become tedious; instead, they bring Larkin’s world into three dimensions. It’s a world that also includes slavery, and although the novel doesn’t avoid the topic, it should be noted that only white characters discuss it—and then only generally about whether they’re for or against it.
A skillful blend of big-picture history and nautical adventure.