April 20, 2006

Adventures Afloat: Bloody Jack

A summer plague changes the fate of an English girl in 1798. Mary Farber is orphaned, dumped curbside on her eight-year-old rump with only the clothes on her back, wailing, as first her father, then her sister and mother are carted away in a wheelbarrow, the child to be sold to a doctor who buys the dead from a scrounger, the adults to be burned or buried in quicklime so their disease won't spread to others. When poor Mary can't cry any more, she finds herself alone in the dark, terrified, cornered and stripped of her belongings. She falls in with the gang of children who have stolen from her, and runs the streets pickpocketing and begging for a few shillings and a crust of bread, which is shared out evenly among the urchins who are now all the family she knows.

It's a hard life, truly, for the gang loses members almost daily - whether they are run down by horses, kidnapped, knifed, hung for stealing or simply die during the night. Ultimately, tragedy strikes the leader of the gang, and Mary knows there must be something better. Donning the clothes from the dead body of her beloved gang leader, Red Charlie, Mary renames herself Jack - and her adventure truly begins. She finds her way onto a ship and begins her life with the Royal British Navy as Jack Faber, Ship's Boy -- and soon enough she is known as 'Bloody Jack.'

Bloody Jack, by Louis A. Meyer, and its sequels Curse of the Blue Tattoo and Under the Jolly Roger are classic adventure tales with a huge following that give a fairly accurate version of life in England and Boston in the early 18th century for ship boys and women -- few rights and a whole lot of people to whom they must say "Yes, Sir." I applaud Meyers for reminding readers of what life was really like back then, in the U.S. and the U.K. - lest historians get overly caught up on "the good old days."

Mary/Jack is quite a good sailor, and once she's figured out how to further her Great Deception, as she calls her continuing struggle to be a boy, she does just fine. Once she gets a few good meals under her belt, however, problems arise. Her body changes and she begins to panic. Further trouble follows. There are men who prey on little boys on her ship, the Dolphin; and wouldn't you know it, one of them seems to have taken to following Jack around...

There is an almost Dickensonian melodrama to the novels, as one terrible dilemma after another befalls the hapless hero/ine, but s/he rises to the occasion, and meets all challenges with a glint in her eye. The characterizations of drunks and whores are pretty well over the top; you expect Little Nell one moment and a capital 'V' villian twirling his moustaches the next. When, in the second novel, Mary re-emerges and is sent to a girl's school, even the toffs and the privileged are either very lovely, or dreadful. This adds a color and life to the narrative in keeping with the times of broadsheets and 'penny dreadfuls.' The first person story narration gives readers even more depth, and the likable Mary/Jack drives the pacing well, though sometimes she is not quite so likeable. She is far from perfect, and continually finds herself in stupid scrapes that may try a reader's patience. She is forever whining, "I says I was sorry," and being unhappy when "I'm sorry" doesn't mend the damage she's done.

For all that she is canny and self-reliant, quick to spring to her own defense, and to help out others in need, Meyers seems to paint Mary/Jack as a rather simple character -- when Mary/Jack cries, it is mouth open, bawling, dripping snot. When she dances, she capers, and kicks up her heels. Meyer seems to find in this character the dictionary definition of "saucy," which is wearing after awhile; and Mary/Jack flirts, winks, nudges and is fairly loose for a girl of the 18th century, even a girl who is poor and destitute (does that mean she's easy because she's poor?). I fail to see that she could have picked up all of the affectations and flirtations she displays at times as an educated girl - even an eight-year old in England at that time would have already been well versed in prayers and known about chastity and meekness and quietness, and not have forgotten it all -- but if the reader doesn't peer too closely at historical accuracy in minutiae, the storylines of these novels are engaging and quick paced and enjoyable on a Spring afternoon.

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