Monday, April 2, 2012
All Sail Set, by Armstrong Sperry
Our protagonist is a teenaged boy named Enoch Thacher. He lives in East Boston, near a shipyard, and is good friends with his neighbor Messina Clark, a retired sailor. Enoch and Messina spend hours and hours and hours discussing life at sea, and Enoch just itches to go to sea himself. One thing leads to another, and he ends up an apprentice on The Flying Cloud, one of the most famous clipper ships in history. This book describes her maiden voyage, and Enoch's (or Thach's, as we learn to call him) experiences as the ship goes from New York, "around the Horn", to San Francisco in record time.
I have mixed feelings about this book. Honestly, I probably would have given up on it if I weren't reading it for the blog. The first 80 pages or so were dry as toast to me, and full of nautical jargon without even being set at sea (yet). But, reading on my own assignment, I persevered, and was glad for it in the end. Once Thach is on the ship, things move along, and there's a lot more actual story. There are good descriptions of life on board the ship, such as sleeping quarters, work schedules, food, general exhaustion, etc. And in what is largely a narrative tale, the reader gets a surprisingly good sense of what it must have felt like to be out on the sea for the first time - getting sea legs, climbing the rigging for the first time, working out disagreements, and most poignantly of all, the emotional connection to the ship herself. The end, for me, was completely unexpected and left me with a lot of respect for the book, as many writers of children's fiction would hesitate to go there.
I am now left wondering (as I often do, with Newbery historical fiction) how much of the story is true. The parts involving The Flying Cloud herself all seem to check out - she really did make record time between New York and San Francisco on her maiden voyage, and really epitomized the romance and spirit of the clipper ship during its heyday. I couldn't find anything (online) about the fire at the end, though, or whether there really was an Enoch Thacher aboard as apprentice.
In the end, I'd say read it - but with the caveat that the reader should a) generally like the sea voyage genre, b) have a lot of patience (or be willing to skip or skim the first few chapters), and c) be aware that there is a very helpful glossary of terms at the end of the book! I think the genre isn't for everyone, but this is a great example of the genre.