The Greater the Honor
Sailing novels of Lord Nelson’s age are of deserved popularity, from Horatio Hornblower to the late lamented O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin. William H. White’s attempt to do the same to American victories against the Barbary pirates, the “shores of Tripoli” of the Marines’ hymn, is, however, a disappointment.
A youthful midshipman on his first tour, Oliver Baldwin, is a poor choice for first-person narrator, leading to vastly more telling than showing throughout. Dialogue, usually a good choice for enlivening a tale, here is far overused, constantly resorted to in order to tell us things Oliver is in no position to see. The technical sailing information, which more skillful writers weave in with sugar coating that makes us greedy for more, is dumped on us like quarts of cod liver oil in speeches of the “As you know, Oliver–” type.
Poor characterization made me think it must have been drawn, however clumsily, from life. Notes assure me otherwise. Events, too, are poorly chosen for drama, ill prepared to heighten tension and then constantly diffused by what must be meant as humor. When a battle scene, for example, is set off from the start as a bout of “festivities,” well, I have lost any investment I had in wanting to see what happens.
What was vital to this tale–and was completely missing–is some understanding of what the pirates were up to. What honor is there to be victorious over an adversary portrayed as only faceless and stupid from the start? The reader is offered no better understanding or even closeness to the action than the soulless video game action over present-day Baghdad.