Friday, April 3, 2015

Repost: 1924 The Dark Frigate

The following post was originally written by me in 2010:

In 1921, 33-year-old author Charles Boardman Hawes released THE GREAT QUEST, a story of a young man on a high seas adventure in search of gold. The novel was Hawes' first published work and it earned him a Newbery Honor in the Newbery's first ever year of existence. Two years later, Charles Boardman Hawes' third novel THE DARK FRIGATE won the Newbery Medal. Sadly, Hawes was not alive to celebrate it. Many have compared Hawes to Robert Louis Stevenson and fully expected that within his lifetime, creating a true masterpiece like Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND could have been well within his reach. Instead, we're left with THE DARK FRIGATE, the best of the three Newbery Medal winners thus far, as his crowning achievement.

To summarize the book . . . Phil Marsham is just shy of twenty-years-old and has recently become orphaned. His father, a sailor, was lost at sea. The money left to him by his father is abandoned in London when Phil accidentally fires Jamie Barwick's rifle in Moll Stevens' alehouse, causing quite the commotion. He's run out of town. On his journey he encounters many interesting characters (too many) before meeting Martin Barwick (Jamie's brother) and Tom Jordan (Old One). Phil makes for the port town of Bideford with Martin as a traveling companion and the two board the Rose of Devon, an impressive "frigate". Once on board, Phil's skills (he takes after his father) impress the ship's leader, Captain Candle, and he's made "boatswain" while Martin is assigned to kitchen help. Phil befriends a boy his age on the ship, Will Canty.

Before long, the Rose of Devon encounters a damaged ship on the waters and rescues its passengers. Much to Phil and Martin's surprise, the ship is led by Tom Jordan, the Old One. The survivors are friendly at first, but something is amiss. Soon, their true intentions are revealed. They are pirates. They kill the Devon's Captain Candle and convince its crew to join them in search of riches. The crew does. All but Phil and Will. The Old One takes a liking to Phil and allows the two to stay on board. After many failed attempts of ship raids, the crew attacks a small village. Will tries to escape, is captured by the pirates, and murdered. Phil successfully escapes to a British warship which he convinces to easily takes over the Old One's crew. They are taken to trial in England, and Phil is lumped in as one of them.

Phil refuses to testify against the crew, despite his unwillingness to join them, and the Old One is so impressed that he testifies instead. Phil is set free and the Old One and his crew are executed. Phil joins the crew of Sir John Bristol, an impressive Lord, Phil met along his earlier travels. Sir John reminds Phil of his father and the two quickly form a tight bond. While fighting in the English Civil War, Sir John is killed in battle and Phil decides to set off on foot again, tired of England. He finds himself back in Bideford by story's end and much to his surprise, ironically, the Rose of Devon is docked there. He sets sail onboard at the story's close.

THE STORY OF MANKIND was just too massive to keep anything straight. DOCTOR DOOLITTLE was just too odd and random to enjoy. THE DARK FRIGATE, despite it's slow beginning, is actually one heck of a well-rounded story. The archaic style of language, makes this story very difficult to understand and I found myself writing brief summaries after every chapter, just so I could keep my thoughts straight. So much energy is put into deciphering the language though, that when I came to page 75 and the Devon had finally set sail, it felt like I was on page 200! But credit Hawes for truly giving this book a 17th Century feel.

Once the Old One and his crew are on board the ship, this book becomes quite the page-turner. Right up to the end. However I did feel the book suffered from having too many "endings". The story could've ended with Phil being set free, escaping execution, but it doesn't. He joins Sir John Bristol and has many more adventures. Even when Sir John is killed in battle, the story could end, but it doesn't, as Phil sets foot again and finds himself in Bideford. I will say, I like the idea of ending with him on board the Rose of Devon again, sort of as if the story has come full circle. So in the long haul, the multiple endings are worth it, because if he hadn't had those adventures with Sir John, he never would've boarded the Devon again so soon.

I'm not sure how many children would be able to handle a book of this style on their own. The plot of this story, is very exciting and would surely appeal to many. Who doesn't love a good pirate adventure? But the work involved in getting to the plot is rather extensive for children under the age of 14. Parents and Newbery committee members must have had tougher skin in the 1920s, to allow a book with an abudance of violent, high-seas murder and drunk men lusting over women in taverns to be awarded a medal so esteemed. But compared to the two Newbery Medal winners that preceded THE DARK FRIGATE, this one was at least enjoyable.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Repost: 1923 The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

I originally wrote the following post in 2010:

My first thought upon completing book #2 of my journey, THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting (Newbery Medal winner from 1923), was 'Whoa . . . there must not have been much competition in the 20s'. Doctor Dolittle has a knack for picking up languages, and he's mastered the skill of speaking to animals. Don't get me wrong, Hugh Lofting has created a memorable, original, polite character in Doctor Dolittle, one that is able to stand the test of time (Eddie Murphy, Ace Ventura anyone). It's really quite the creative concept, especially in 1923! But this particular story has sooooo much going on. The many detours make it hard to follow and much of this story could have been trimmed down quite a bit (Where were all the editors in 1923?). It could've made for a much more enjoyable, and bearable read!

For example: Part II of the book kicks off introducing readers to Luke the Hermit. Tommy (our narrator) and the Doctor are recruiting some helping hands for the voyage they are about to embark on. Luke is their top choice. We're given a back story, we're given a mystery, and we're given some suspense. The Doctor helps clear Luke's name in a trial of sorts by talking to animal witnesses (Luke had previously been accused of murder). At the end of Part II, once Luke's name has been cleared and the good Doctor has saved the day, Luke declines the invitation to join them on their voyage. What?! Seriously?! What is the point in introducing us to a character like Luke, only to dump them by the wayside? The story of Luke the Hermit felt like a complete waste of time. Sure, he pops up a short while later as a stowaway, changing his mind about the voyage, but even the Doctor is annoyed and quickly disposes of him. We never hear from him again.

It takes nearly half of the story to pass by before the Doctor and his sidekicks finally set sail and the first place they stop is Spain. Spain was not in on itinerary, but they needed to get rid of some stowaways. While in Spain, the Doctor is lured off task by the possibility of ending the cruel sport of bullfighting once and for all. He hustles the Spaniards and steps into the ring as a matador turning the bulls on the fighters and angering the crowd in the process. The Doctor and his crew are run out of town and again, I was left scratching my head. Did Hugh Lofting think all these sidebars were fun? The book and all it's adventures reminded me of a bedtime story that your Grandpa tells you after you're tucked in and ready for sleep. Except the story is making less and less sense because Grandpa is making it up as he goes but you continue to listen and fight off sleep because Grandpa's a funny guy and even a little crazy in his own way!

Another annoyance with this book is the excessive politeness displayed amongst its characters. Now I'm a teacher. I'm all for "please" and "thank you". I'm all for politeness. But the politeness found in this book is on a whole other level! It's distracting! "May I please share an idea with you Doctor?" asks Tommy. "Why certainly my dear boy," responds the Doc. "I think you are the best Doctor in the world," states Tommy. "Well thank you for sharing that pleasant thought," thanks the Doctor. "Thank you so much for letting me share it," coos Tommy. "You are so very welcome," says the Doc. Imagine 300+ pages of conversation exactly like that . . . Argh! And what kind of parents agree to let their ten-year old move out of the house and live with the crazy, polite, old doctor down the block who happens to talk to animals? And then agree to letting that child set sail across the globe with that Doctor? Come on! I know this is a fantasy story but seriously . . .

After THE STORY OF MANKIND, I was really looking forward to this book, but I almost found it more unbearable than that first one. There is some good stuff . . . the mystery of Long Arrow's disappearance and the mystery of the shellfish language keep you engaged, despite the fact that they are never really solved (or even "mysteries" to begin with). There's a good message buried in these pages about doing work you love, not just work that pays good. And the writing at times is top notch. I love Tommy's description of the ship: "This ship, which was to be our house and our street, our home and our garden, for so many days to come, seemed so tiny in all this wide water - so tiny and yet so snug, sufficient, and safe." But in the end, this book is a snoozer.

I even tried to get my cat Elliot to read it, thinking the good Doctor could "speak" to her. But all she did was sniff it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Revisiting My Newbery Project (Repost of "1922: The Story of Mankind")

Almost 5 years ago, I wanted to read all of the Newbery Medal winners and keep an account of each on a blog. I wanted to read them in order too, so that I could see the progression of the different styles of writing awarded each year throughout the decades. At that time, there were 89 winners. Since then, 5 more have been added making the grand total of winners 94.

I gave up after the first three.

I have decided to give it a try again. To get me back in the mood, I'm going to repost the first three reflections I wrote and hope it motivates me! The following reflection of Hendrik van Loon's THE STORY OF MANKIND, was written back in 2010!


1922: The Story of Mankind

That's me. Sleeping. That's what seemed to happen naturally every time I picked up Book Number 1 of my journey, THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik van Loon. Let's just say, I'm kind of relieved to get this one out of the way!

532. That's how many pages this first ever Newbery Medal winner clocked in at, or at least the edition I read. I've seen upwards of 600 pages in more recent prints as the book keeps growing and growing with history. I'll count myself lucky . . .

As a Christian man, I personally became bothered after reading page one. If anything, I found his scientific summary of man's origin ("the first living cell floated upon the waters of the sea") just as "far fetched" as he claims religion is. I was deeply disturbed by the way he portrays Christians throughout the book as a clan of poor, uncivilized men; imbeciles, who had nothing better to do than fantasize. The sarcastic tone he takes when poking fun at the Jews and Moses is unflattering and it cuts at his credibility, in my opinion. Especially when he raves on and on about Buddha and the Age of Science later in the book. Ugh!

I tried to set my personal bias aside and read the book with an open mind . . . I enjoyed his explanation of hieroglyphics and the Sumerians' and the Phoenicians' inventions of writing. I liked how Van Loon constantly reminded us that throughout history, time periods blended together and didn't end abruptly, like time line's sometimes show. The story of Heinrich Schliemann's search for the city of Troy was fascinating, and one I had never heard before. And I'm sure nonfiction lovers everywhere would enjoy the quote "Why should we ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining?"

I can tell that Van Loon is trying to speak to children but when he's in his history-story-telling groove, this really doesn't speak to children at all. At one point, he casually directs the reader to think of a specific song by the poet Heine in order to truly "feel" the history of Napoleon. Children don't know who Heine is! I didn't know who Heine was without Googling him! Besides, I don't know of too many children searching the library for good 600+ page nonfiction reads.

In the end, THE STORY OF MANKIND is little more than a modern Social Studies textbook, grades 1-6 combined! It's a remarkable feat, summarizing history the way Van Loon has, but it's also way too much. This book has to be absorbed in small doses. After a while, the dates and the battles and the wars and the discoveries and the leaders all jumble together, making it difficult to take away much substance from this book. You know when you read something and your mind can't help itself from wandering? Before you know it, you've read a page or two without really reading any of it, causing you to go back and re-read . . . this entire book felt like that after a while! It was always the same thing . . . it was kind of refreshing to get it off my plate.