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The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes

Posted by Sherry on 2/15/2007 in Children's Fiction, Newbery Project |

Philip Marsham was bred to the sea as far back as the days when he was cutting his milk teeth, and he never thought he should leave it; but leave it he did, once and again, as I shall tell you.

Book #2 in my 2007 Newbery Award Project is Charles Hawes’ tale of adventure and piracy in a seventeenth century sailing frigate, The Rose of Devon. It’s a “dark frigate” because of the dark deeds that take place in and around it as the ship is captured by pirates, and the hero of the story, young Philip Marsham, is forced to join the pirates against his will —or lose his life.

In an introductory note on back of the dedication page, Hawaes writes, “From curious old books, many of them forgotten save by students of archaic days at sea, I have taken words and phrases and incidents. The words and phrases I have put into the talk of the men of the Rose of Devon; the incidents I have shaped and fitted anew to serve my purpose.”

Lots of sailor talk and sea-going jargon in this book: mainmast, mizzenmast, scupper-holes, lee, maintop, lanthorn, forecastle, capstan, windlass, sheet anchor, ship’s liar, boatswain, bullies, whip-staff, breeching, sheet, brace, halyards, clew garnets, leechlines, buntlines, aft, amain, downhaul, traverse, gall, belay, spritsail-yard. Those are just a few of the words for which I had to guess at the meanings from only one chapter. It might be well to do a short lesson on nautical terms before reading this book aloud to a class or at home.

There were also some delightful insults that I’m sure any red-blooded child would love to write down and save for later use: lobcock, lapwing, puddling quacksalver, vagabond cockerel, old cozzener, rakehell muckworm, base stinkard, bawcock. (I’m rather attached to “puddling quacksalver” myself.) Of course, I would never allow a child of mine to use such terms in polite company, but then again, no one would know what they meant anyway. so . . .

I think with a bit of preparation and a bit of explanation along the way, The Dark Frigate could be a great read aloud, especially for boys. I can envision hours of pretend play following the reading of this book. And the book doesn’t idealize pirates, either; these pirates are real villains, bloodthristy and greedy and cruel with hardly any redeeming qualities. There’s a moral to the story: be careful whom you trust, and don’t get involved with bad company if you can help it. Or get away from bad company as quickly as possible before you get tarred with the same brush as they are. But the moral is something to be derived from the narrative; not once is the story preachy or unrealistic.

This Newbery Medal book (1923) holds up well. The introduction to the copy I got from the library was written by Lloyd Alexander, and he says much the same thing, “Though it lies beyond our power to sail with him again, we have had the good fortune to sail with him at least once in The Dark Frigate, and we could ask for no more fascinating voyage.”

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