Marooned on Boon Island, survivors eat ship’s carpenter

Kenneth Roberts needed no assistance in creating a compelling plot for his historical novel Boon Island.

The facts are horrific.

Boon Island by Kenneth Roberts

Doubleday, 1956. 274 pp. 1956 best-seller #10. My Grade: B-.

On December 11, 1710, the Nottingham, an English vessel headed for Portsmouth with a load of butter and cheese, struck Boon Island off the Maine coast in the middle of a nor’easter.

Lighthouse and three buildings on small rocky island
Tiny Boon Island seen in a 1911 postcard. The lighthouse was built in 1854-55.

Of the 14 on board when the ship sank, only 10 lived to be rescued January 4, 1711.

The marooned men included a boy of perhaps 8 or 10  and his partially disabled father, the captain’s epileptic brother, and seamen both stupid and cruel.

Without food, tools, or fire, the cold, hungry survivors ate seaweed, raw mussels, a seagull, and finally, the ship’s carpenter.

Had it not been for the courage and leadership of Captain John Dean, it’s unlikely that anyone would have survived.

Despite the riveting events, Boon Island is a dull novel.

The narrator is too remote, the characters too static, the descriptions too vague, the language too modern and sanitary to make readers feel they are at the scene.

However, the story itself is so incredible, if you pretend Boon Island is the printed description of a film and imagine the visuals, you’ll can make it a compelling read.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Carryovers from 1940

Two novels on the 1941 bestseller list were also on the 1940 list.  Their reviews were posted along with those for the year they made their first appearance.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, which was in fourth place in 1940, slipped to fifth in 1941.

Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, which was in seventh place in 1940 crept up to sixth place in 1940.

If you didn’t read them last year when they were in the rota, look for them now. They are worth reading.

Loser Oliver Wiswell’s View of Revolution Is a Winner

In Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts explores history from Bunker Hill to Yorktown from the perspective of a Loyalist historian who views the revolution as “the American Civil War.”

Oliver Wiswell rescues Tom Buell from a mob of the Sons of Liberty who turn the pair and Oliver’s dying father from their Massachusetts home.

Oliver and Tom wind up as British spies. Their spying takes them to England and France, but Oliver never forgets the girl he left in Massachusetts.

Later Oliver and Tom go back to the colonies to see what’s happening to the Loyalists. The two are in New York when Cornwallis surrenders to Washington.

Afterward, the Loyalists have to flee. Some go south to the Caribbean. Oliver and Tom lead an emigration to Canada.

This novel’s historical detail is more interesting than either its plot or its fictional characters. Roberts makes the usual points about both sides in a war being bad, equally disillusioned, equally disgusted by incompetent leadership.

Where the novel shines, however, is in showing how both rebels and loyalists were insulted by British criticism of Americans. Perhaps if American diplomats were to read Oliver Wiswell, they’d have better insight into contemporary events in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Java.

Oliver Wiswell
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, Doran, 1940
836 pages
1940 Bestseller #7
My Grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Northwest Passage Is Half Good Reading

Northwest Passage is a super novel about the French and Indian Wars and a not-very good novel about political espionage, both between one set of covers.

Langdon Towne finds it wise to leave his native Portsmouth in 1759 when some of the King’s officials overhear his remarks about them. He joins Major Rogers, the greatest of the Indian fighters, in an expedition to wipe an enemy village northeast of Montreal. Kenneth Robert’s makes that tale jump off the page in technicolor and surround sound. I couldn’t put the book down until the survivors got back home. Like Towne, I admired Rogers leadership and was willing to overlook his flaws.

What happens after the St. Francis expedition is another story. The second tale is splintered and murky. Towne signs on to go with Rogers to find a Northwest Passage from the Great Lakes to the Pacific. Rogers never goes. He ends up in a Fleet Street prison in London.

Few novelists can match Roberts’ skill with an adventure story, but political intrigue isn’t his forté.

I recommend you read book I of Northwest Passage, and skip book II unless you are more interested in Revolutionary War history than in a good yarn.

Northwest Passage
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, 1937
734 pages
#2 on the 1937 and #5 on the 1938 bestseller lists
My grade: C

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Only Returning Vets Could Love Lydia Bailey

Lydia Bailey burst onto the post-war literary scene, securing author Kenneth Roberts a niche in popular historical fiction for years. Today the novel serves only as a glimpse into the background of events that occasionally erupt onto the evening news.

In 1800, lawyer Albion Hamlin reluctantly leaves his New England farm to represent clients fighting government regulation and red tape.

Hamblin’s work takes him to Haiti, where he meets and marries the lovely Lydia Bailey. Caught in the hostilities surrounding the French re-invasion of the island, the couple escape and sail for Europe.

In the Mediterranean, they are captured by forces of the Baashaw of Tripoli, who has declared war on America. The couple saves their skins, but their lives are never the same afterward.

Hamlin says the things most soldiers just home from the front lines would like to say. I suspect his bitterness made Lydia Bailey a success among folks who had just come through World War II.

Today’s returning vets may have the same gripes, but they wouldn’t go for Roberts’ writing. All Roberts’ meticulous research can’t hide the implausible plot. And his flat, one-dimensional characters and paragraph-length sentences would sink the novel.

Lydia Bailey
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, 1947
488 pages
#4 bestseller in 1947
My Grade: C
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni