It is 1799, and the young American navy is faced with challenges on the high seas – both from Great Britain, who tries to impress sailors from American ships, and from the country’s quasi-war with France. The protagonist, seventeen-year-old Matty Graves, serves as midshipman of the Rattle-Snake under his cousin, Captain Billy Trimble, who can usually be found below deck in a drunken stupor. Matty is constantly torn between his loyalty to “Cousin Billy” and the sarcastic second-in-command, Lt. Peter Wickett, who tries to run a proper ship of the line. Assigned to protect merchant ships, the Rattle-Snake becomes involved in the civil war on the French island of San Domingo. Attacked by longboats, Matty is captured, befriends the leader, and is allowed to escape back to his ship. Upon his return, Matty is forced to choose sides in the ongoing struggle for command of the Rattle-Snake.
Most of the novel’s action centers on the interaction between Matty and his shipmates. Campbell does a fine job presenting the politics and social complications of the new country of America. He also details how these factors affect the main characters and their interactions with the British and French they encounter in the Caribbean.
I enjoyed this novel and anxiously await the next entry in Campbell’s series of books about Matty Graves. His combination of historical accuracy, characterization and human drama is captivating, and the story is fast-paced.