Black Jack Anderson

Written by Elaine Forrestal
Review by Liz Corbett

There is always a danger when writing a pirate story of making it too exciting, of somehow condoning the crime. Elaine Forrestal has not fallen into that trap. But her novel of Black Jack Anderson, an African-American seaman who sailed the seas of south-western Australia during the 1830s and sustained himself by sealing, whaling and theft, is not particularly compelling.

The narrative starts well. The weather-beaten pirate, Nimble Gimble, reports the murder of Black Jack Anderson, a man believed to have drowned two years prior. Forrestal then goes on to ‘tell’ us the story of Anderson’s youth and early employment, leading up to the night he accidentally killed a man and descended into piracy. Unfortunately these scenes lack dramatic tension; I found myself easily bored.

No one can fault Forrestal’s attention to detail. We get a good sense of where Anderson and his men lived, how they planned their raids, and how they etched out an existence in a harsh maritime environment. But we gain no real insight into Anderson’s personality. This wouldn’t have mattered if a supporting character was brought to life, or if we were able to experience Anderson through his impact on someone else’s life. But this did not occur. The only character I developed any empathy for was Dorothy, Anderson’s woman, but she didn’t enter until page eighty of the narrative.

Black Jack Anderson is not an altogether bad book. I suspect the fault lies in its marketing. We are promised a page-turning pirate story, a portrait of a ruthless, passionate and charismatic man: terror of the seas. Instead, we are given a landscape, a picture of daily life in the early maritime settlements of Western Australia. It was bound to be disappointing.