Monday, June 27, 2016

Book Review: Mutiny on the Bounty

©1932 by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

Part One of the “Bounty Trilogy”

Plucked this novel off a used book shelf two or three years ago, and each time I placed it in the On Deck circle a modicum of fear overcame me. Would it be worth the investment of time? Would it be a thick mire of verbiage necessitating a metaphorical machete hack to get through the dense 80-year old prose? Would I be able to experience the visceral tangible tangle, the moral and ethical sparring match between William Bligh and Fletcher Christian? Unwilling to roll the dice to these questions – after all, life is way too short to fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way – I returned the book back in its place and vied for more conservative far.

Boy, was I ever wrong. In fact, it’s so rare how wrong I was, more wronger never was I.

True, it is a pretty hefty endeavor at 372 pages, many of those pages packing pretty hefty paragraphs. Yet the story never lagged. Because these two authors have a very special gift for creating vivid, exciting images, painting a lexical picture as it were, of the tension, the terrors, the wonder and the beauty, of the seafaring life in the late 18th century. The brutal discipline of a captain at sea, the agonies of thirst and hunger, the danger of shipwreck and drowning, the insane randomness of mutiny – and the gorgeous paradise of Tahiti, of love with the most angelic people this side of heaven. This novel could be one of the few where I’ve actually dug those packed paragraphs more, perhaps, than its intelligent, intellectual, and witty dialogue.

So – I was surprised. Over the course of seven days, I almost couldn’t put it down. I started the novel at my parents’ town pool with the girls on Father’s Day weekend. Only read forty pages on day one. Then on Father’s Day I put away a hundred pages in the tub, in the guest room taking a break from the party, on the car ride home, at night in my cozy chair. During the week I’d read on my lunch break and every night after all the girls went to bed. Stayed up past my bedtime, too, which is impressive for my old carcass, especially as Patch the human alarm clock wakes me every morning at 5:45.

It was one of those tales I didn’t want to end. At first I thought I’d never get all the characters – over twenty regulars, I suppose – straight, but their personalities, both good, not so good, and downright nasty, quickly shined through. We all know the story, right? A true one, too. The H.M.S. Bounty under strict disciplinarian Lieutenant William Bligh is charged with retrieving a large cargo of breadfruit trees from Tahiti to replant in one of Britain’s new world colonies. The ship stays in the tropical island for five months, then resumes her mission. Now, whether it be the liberties taken with the Tahitians, or Bligh’s excessive Queegish punishments for the slightest offenses, or some unholy combination of both, mutiny occurs under the leadership of mercurial Fletcher Christian.

The most interesting part of the novel is the protagonist. It is not Christian. Nor is it Bligh. It is Roger Byam, a fictional personage based heavily on one of the true-life midshipmen on the voyage. Byam is a young man with a gift for language, who is sent with the Bounty to compile a dictionary of the Tahitian language as a service to the Crown. He’s the window in which we see life on a British small merchant vessel. We see both Bligh – originally a charming, magnetic influence on Byam – and Fletcher as opposing sympathetic poles to the lad. The incomprehensible loveliness of Tahiti seeps through every sentence he tells us (he is telling us this story as an old man at his hearth). Through him we experience the roil and turmoil of the semi-spontaneous mutiny. And we suffer with him through capture, imprisonment, and near death at sea as he stands accused – falsely – of being complicit with Christian because the small boat set adrift holding Bligh and his loyalists could not hold any further men without sinking. Put on trial and convicted on untrue testimony, with those who can possibly save him dead or lost at sea … how can poor Roger Byam deny the hangman his poor innocent life?

A thoroughly enjoyable, absorbing tale. Grade: A+


I mentioned at the start that Mutiny on the Bounty is the first part of the “Bounty Trilogy” written by Nordhoff and Hall.

Part Two – Men Against the Sea – describes Bligh’s journey over four thousand miles of ocean to eventual civilization in the Bounty’s smaller launch, with eighteen other men, battling thirst, hunger, the elements, and cannibals. He made it in seven weeks with the loss of only one man to the spears of natives on an island they stopped at to forage for fresh water and food.

Part Three – Pitcairn’s Island – follows Christian and the mutineers in search of a settlement / hideaway to eke out their lives and avoid the British authorities. After deposing Bligh the crew fights savages unsuccessfully on an uncharted isle, then returns to Tahiti. Several of the mutineers, as well as the innocent crewmen unable to obtain a seat in Bligh’s boat, remain on the island. Christian with eight of his compatriots, plus eighteen Tahitians depart, eventually to find refuge on Pitcairn’s Island. Within eighteen years all but one mutineer is dead, many at the hands of their fellow conspirators.

Both novels are on my Acquisitions List.

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