Prisoner of Wallabout Bay

Written by Jane Hulse
Review by Fiona Alison

In Loyalist New York City in 1776, seventeen-year-old Sarah Barrett lives with her mother and brother and dreams of being a novelist, or at least a writer for Jonah, the newspaper editor she works for. Sarah’s young man, Samuel, is a respected lawyer and spends much time chiding her for her unladylike notions. But his insistence on proper behavior chafes at the headstrong Sarah, strengthening her ambivalence about becoming his wife. She’s an expert print-setter, constantly splattered with ink and distracted by more important things. Much to Samuel’s chagrin, she accompanies her mother to a prison ship to sell garden produce to British officers and witnesses firsthand the dire conditions aboard ship, whereby hundreds of diseased and starving men are stacked like cordwood below decks. Sarah is haunted by the need to bring this inhuman cruelty to light, and when one of the prisoners turns out to be the brother of her best friend, Emma, Sarah is determined to rescue him.

Sarah sometimes addresses the reader personally, but she is more adept at telling her story than showing us what it feels like to have rebel leanings in a staunchly Loyalist city. The narrative isn’t tightly plotted, and its flow is interrupted whenever events feel staged to fit the direction of the story, such as Emma’s fortuitous appointment as nanny to the ship captain’s household. Sarah’s unnoticed disappearances below decks and hiding a redcoat uniform and shoes in a hand-held basket of fruit, plus other things, feel oversimplified. Sarah’s on-off relationships with her mother, Emma, Samuel, and Jonah are fractious and strained to the point where it’s hard to understand her reasoning. Deeper historical development and character backstories might help, but credit is definitely due the author for drawing attention to the prison ship travesty.