When I first started reading the third Newbery award winner, I thought The Dark Frigate, by Charles Boardman Hawes, would be as much of a letdown as its predecessors. For reasons I cannot explain entirely, once the protagonist set out to sea, the story began to draw me in. But first, the overlong and less than interesting set-up:
When Philip Marsham’s father is lost at sea, the nineteen year old lad is left to fend for himself. Possessing a “blithe spirit that seasons a journey well,” Phil roams the English countryside for “he was no lad to be stayed for lack of wind.” He makes an impression on quite a few people, including a kind Scottish smith, a comely tavern wench, and a bluff old knight. He also picks up a half-witted but shifty traveling companion who brings them to the Rose of Devon, “a brave tall ship, yet, despite her gilded carving and her band of crimson, her towering sides which were painted black gave her a singularly dark appearance, and she put to sea like a shadow out of older days.”
Hey ho, that’s not ominous at all. Merely a week at sea, the boatswain falls off the rigging and goes “upon the ultimate adventure which all must face, each man for himself.” Impressed by Phil’s seamanship, the captain makes him the new boatswain. There’s a good old-fashioned storm, lots of nautical terminology buffeted about at a brisk pace, and the rescue of a stranded ship’s crew. Except that the stranded crew are actually “gentlemen of fortune.”
This is probably a good time to rid your minds of grizzled but good-natured sea dogs of the Disney variety. There isn’t an ounce of romanticism in Hawes’s portrayal of these pirates. The Rose’s original captain meets a sorry but unsentimental end; they slit his throat and stuff him in the hold. The pirates’ leader, the Old One, is particularly ruthless and sadistic. Upon the capture of a young runaway sailor, he says, “I have a tender heart and am by nature merciful. Though he broke faith and dipped his hands in black treachery, I bear him no ill will. I must needs twist his thumbs to wring his secrets out of him and I can no longer keep him about me; yet, as I have said, I bear him no ill will. Saw you ever a finer coffin than the one I have ordered made for him?” As for the crew, they’re both greedy and cowardly. Phil has no choice but to join them, lest his story be abridged.
After the mutiny, the story shifts away from Philip Marsham to encapsulate the lawless exploits of the Rose’s crew, from the captain down to the cook. They waylay unsuspecting ships, talk of finding an island “to which they might return with a store of wives and wines, and from which they could sally forth when their supplies of either got low,” and ultimately, as pirate adventures often do, head for the gallows, Phil included…
Now Frigate is a far cry from the thoughtful and sensitive Newbery winners of today. All the same, this coming-of-age story must have stirred the imaginations of countless boys who identified more with brave and roguish Phil than docile and obsequious Tommy (from Dr. Dolittle). As for me, although I related to none of the characters, I grew to enjoy the unusual and old-fashioned flavor of writing, which Dawes researched “from curious old books, many of them forgotten save by students of archaic days at sea.” The language of King Charles and Oliver Cromwell’s time, along with the sea-faring jargon, made for many memorable quotes. True, Frigate was a grim and hard slog to read at first, but at the very least, I now have bragging rights.