This was a very busy year for illustrator Lynd Ward- he also illustrated The Cat Who Went to Heaven, the Newbery Award winner this same year.
Although the cover leads one to believe that this book takes place primarily on the open sea, it is actually set in the port city of Lisbon, Portugal, in the late 1400's. Bartholomew Diaz has recently completed the first known European voyage around the southern tip of Africa, and he and a number of other prominent men (some real, some invented for the story) are making plans for further voyages to determine whether this could be the beginning of a new trade route toward India. This would allow Lisbon to become a major trading port and hopefully edge out Venice, its primary competitor.
Throughout the book, everyone is anxiously awaiting the return of Vasco da Gama, who has set sail with a number of ships to attempt to see if it is possible to reach India and the spice islands by continuing Diaz's voyage. However, after no word is received for some time, the sailing community is beginning to lose hope. At the center of the story is Abel Zakuto, a Jewish Banker, who also has a keen interest in mapmaking and sea navigation. One evening he and his wife Ruth find a young girl of undetermined race peering into the window, appearing to be fleeing something (or some one). They take the bedraggled creature in and care for her, but they are unable to coax her name, or any language at all, from her to determine her origins. Meanwhile, things become uncomfortable for them- the king of Portugal has formed an alliance with Spain through an engagement, one of the conditions of which is the expulsion of all Jews from Portugal.
The book takes place in interesting times and has a well-developed stage and cast of characters. I'll admit that when I first saw the cover my first though was "Not ANOTHER seafaring book. I'm going to hate this". It certainly proved me wrong. The author also has tremendous insights not only into the political and trade relationships between various nations and people groups at the time, but also into the cultures of the Arab world (she had the fortune to be raised in Syria as the daughter of missionaries). Although the initial chapter is confusing in the way it introduces so many characters without placing them, it quickly redeems itself!