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3.0 out of 5 stars A Fabulist Tale of the Sea, 11 Oct. 2010
This review is from: Middle Passage (Paperback)
I felt kind of let down by this one though perhaps my expectations were just misplaced. I came to it seeking a realistic tale of Africans coming to the Americas and the role of slavery in 19th century American society. The book gives a taste of that in the freed slave Rutherford Calhoun's tale of how he relocated to New Orleans after a childhood as a slave to a benevolent master who set him and his brother free upon his deathbed, having previously seen that they got a decent education and something to show for their labors during their enslavement. But it finally leaves one unsatisfied in that department.

The protagonist, one Rutherford Calhoun, reports how he ended up in New Orleans and became a no-account, finally fleeing his adopted and rather decadent town to escape a forced marriage to a prim woman who offers him stability and a future as well as her affection. Instead, Rutherford, running unthinkingly from responsibility stows away on a ship in the harbor, only to learn she is a slaver (illegal at this stage in American history) and no fit place for a young fellow like himself. The ship's captain turns out to be a charismatic dwarf, the first mate the morose and and regretful failed son of a prosperous New Englander who seeks to mitigate the captain's harshness but is mostly ineffective in the effort.

The rest of the crew, including the ship's cook (Rutherford's initial unwitting benefactor), prove to be the usual gaggle of grotesque roustabouts familiar from many similar sea tales and their objective is a port on the western coast of Africa where they are to pick up a cargo of slaves along with a very special additional item as we learn once they have arrived. Calhoun goes from being the captain's potential squeeze to his confidante and, later, spy, though Calhoun has no real loyalty to anyone but himself and manages to switch sides a number of times in the growing dynamics embodied in the machinations of a disaffected crew, a justifiably paranoid if tyrannical captain and the slaves, the last of their tribe, who have been brutally stowed in the ship's hold. Along with them the captain has secured something mysterious, which has been captured with them, caged in the lowest hold of the ship.

All goes badly, as well it must in such tales, and disputes lead to mutiny and the slaves get free -- no sense telling it all here -- but suffice it to say that this is very much a fabulist novel, in the tradition of the great sea stories, with its own unfathomable monster, a veritable force of nature or worse, at its core. And, as with most such stories, all does not go well. There is a storm, killings, shipwreck and the inevitable gaping maw of the ocean. The tale's fabulistic nature left me somewhat cold, I'm afraid, perhaps because I was looking for something more realistic instead of what turned out to be a rather abstract philosophical tale. The sea story symbolism was too heavily laid on for my tastes while the anachronisms (which I first took for mistakes that had escaped the editor) proved too frequent to have been anything but intentional, despite their jarring impact which constantly shook me out of the spirit of the story. In the end it all wraps up too neatly, the really bad guy turning out to be, well, the really bad guy.

But I couldn't help wondering what had happened to the Almuseris' tribal god when all the storms had passed, that creature of otherwordly mien which turns Rutherford's hair prematurely white by the time the novel ends. This one would have been better, I think, had the story hewed to a cleaner trajectory, either becoming the full blown sea story it often seemed to promise to be, with its own mysterious white whale a la Moby Dick, or the genuinely historical novel, opening a window into the times and crimes of an earlier era, that I had been seeking. As it is, it was neither.

Stuart W. Mirsky
author of The King of Vinland's Saga
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