Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive
In Brief: A lightweight pair of stories, each with its own poignancy, drawn together by the fragment of a flag from HMS Victory. Honest efforts of a family remarried after widowhood to get along. Brutality of life at sea in Nelson's Navy. Friendship and emnity on board ship. Cheerful and concerned family life. Very mild sexual references.
Publisher: Random House
Published in: 2006
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Setting: Connecticut, London, HMS Victory
- Sam Robbins is a 11-year-old boy, press-ganged onto HMS Victory.
- Molly is an 11-year-old English girl whose widowed mother has just remarried and taken her daughter to join her new husband and his son in America.
Present-day Molly finds a fragment of the Victory's flag in the binding of an old book and starts to feel the echoes of Sam Robbins' life on board Nelson's ship at Trafalgar. Molly is miserable in America and feels homesick for London; Sam is miserable at having been press-ganged onto HMS Victory. Each child must find a way to settle down in a new life.
One boy, one girl, two hundred years apart, each pulled from familiar surroundings and having to find a new place in a new setting. There is a slender and unelaborated connection between Molly and Sam, made evident in the historical echoes which Molly hears from time to time after buying an old book in which Sam's descendants have hidden his fragment of Nelson's flag. The author avoids the temptation to overdo the supernatural: there's a connection, and that's all the reader needs to know. What's important is that each of the children settle down in a new life.
Sam's family is poor, his father and older brother rough and only too glad to see him apprenticed to his uncle, a roper from Chatham. Uncle Charlie and his wife Joan are childless and, for the brief time he's with them, take good care of Sam. The book's only references to sex come from Sam's story: his father “always turned to his mother at night, whether she wanted it or not”. Later, put in a holding cell by the press gang, one of the other men tries to grope Sam.
Molly and her mother and her new stepfather and stepbrother all do their best to make the new family work. Molly and Russel have had “three years of learning to be brother and sister” and each makes an effort to overcome the gaps which would otherwise exist between a 16-year-old American boy and an 11-year-old English girl.
Sam's life on board ship is hardworking and at times brutal. He's punished on one occasion for insolence by having an iron bar tied across his open mouth for several days. Another boy is given twelve strokes with a cane for stealing. Admiral Nelson, Sam's hero, is a gentle man, but discipline on board his and any other ship of the time is obviously fierce. The author presents the regime without comment, as a merely historical matter. Likewise, in battle, people are killed and maimed. Men steeling themselves before battle are naturally praying, and when Sam reacts to seeing a dead man dragged past, ready to be thrown overboard, the only consolation another sailor offers is: “Pray for his soul”. I applaud the author for not trying to inject modern sensibilities into the 19th century milieu. And — a personal vote of thanks — there's no girl dressed as a boy among the sailors.
As in all Susan Cooper's books, the respective families are loving and caring. Sam's family, his mothers and sisters, for all his father's boorish ways, continue to love him, and he finds a family of sorts in the community onboard ship. When her whole family moves to Connecticut, Molly is miserable, but tries not to inflict this on the rest of them. Perhaps I'm too jaundiced a reader of modern books where families are almost always in breakdown and trauma and where generations are at constant war with one another. But I take particular delight in reading about Molly's making faces at Donald, her 2-year-old brother, who's frightened by the Tube, and to see adolescent Russell and his loud-mouthed friend Jack make a groping apology for upsetting Molly. Molly's grandparents are neatly depicted, the grandpa who cooks and who won't have anything to do with mobile phones or computers, the granny who mows the lawn and mends fuses, and Grandpa's realisation, when trying to respond to Molly's wild scheme to stay in London, that parenthood is for life.
One especial pleasure I get from reading Susan Cooper's novels is that each one has a particular passage of evocative beauty. In Over Sea, Under Stone, it's chapter six where Merriman and the children go up onto the ancient headland to read Bedevere's manuscript. In the Boggart, it's the moment when the Boggart takes over the Volnik's theatre in his outpouring of grief at the death of a friend long-ago. King of Shadows has Nat Field's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, taking you through the twists and turns of the story with Puckish delight, finishing with one last cartwheel. This book doesn't quite rise to the occasion, but comes close when Sam describes the moment in which the Bosun signals for the sails to be unfurled, and Molly's quiet delight at seeing London again from the plane.
- New families and moving away
- The reality of life in history
Then came: “Trice up! Lay out!” and the tiny figures aloft would swarm out along the yards, till the masts and rigging looked like a tree in autumn thronged with migrating birds. And the last order was the one I waited for with most delight: “Let fall, sheet home, haul aboard, hoist away!” — for then suddenly, to a chorus of moving ropes and blocks and beams, all the sails of the boat would drop, rise, fill, all at once, billowing out to catch the wind. And Victory under full sail carried four full acres of canvas — helped up by those twenty-seven miles of rigging, cared for and mended and remade by my uncle and the other ropers.
Saturday 5th August 2006