Stowaway, by Karen Hesse with illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker, 315 pp, RL 4

I suppose one of the perks of knowing almost nothing about history is that I can go into reading a work of historical fiction for young readers with almost the exact same collection of knowledge as the intended audience has, which basically means no preconceived notions and, more often than not, no real idea of how the book will end. I guess I do have the advantage (over kids) of knowing that a book I am about to read is based on real historical figures, places and events and being able to place their achievements and losses in historical perspective, despite my shoddy knowledge of the history of the world. And, while I did know that Captain Cook and his ship Endeavor were real, I had no idea where he sailed to and what the significance of his voyage was. With this in mind, I might suggest that readers begin Stowaway by the always amazing Karen Hesse, at the end of the book. The Afterword will provide readers with a solid grasp of the time, place and people in the story and the factual lists, glossary and map will help readers begin to gain an understanding of the alien world of life on a ship near the end of the Eighteenth Century that they are about the enter. Hesse brings her way with history to this adventure story, the imagine diary of the very real Nicholas Young, who is eleven when he buys his way aboard the Endeavor as a stowaway. Not only was this stowaway the first to sight New Zealand (Young Nick's Head, a prominent point on the island) is named for him, he was also the first to sight Land's End, the home port of Plymouth, almost three years after he stowed away aboard Captain Cook's Endeavor.

Besides a map charting the voyage, Hesse provides a list of the ship's company and their ages, when available, the ship's itinerary and a glossary of terms, which I found invaluable and enjoyed immensely. The episodic diary nature of Stowaway is well suited to the story of the thirty-five month long ocean journey as it is at times exciting and suspenseful and alternately placid and occasionally dull. Hesse sails along with this up and down pace and holds the reader's interest by giving life to Nick Young. In Nick, Hesse imagines a young boy who has seen enough hardship to drive him to steal from his master and stow away on a ship, but also one who comes from an educated class that values subservience in their young as well a solid education. When, after his mother's death and his father's remarriage, Nick proves to be less willing to tow the line than his older brothers who are at university, his father takes action. Sent first to be educated by the Reverend Smythe who beats his own children because he cannot beat his paying pupils (not only does he beat his children, he forces the ill-behaved student to watch) this is more than Nick can bear. When he runs away from Reverend Smythe one too many times Nick's father sends him to apprentice a butcher in Plymouth, who has no qualms about beating him to the point of scarring. Nick's miserable situation and a view of the ships in the bay combine to make the dangers of theft and stowing away seem  like the best option out there.

In Nick Hesse creates a thoughtful, curious, principaled boy who grows into a promising, motivated young man over the course of the three years he is at sea. Fortuitously, Nick brings a journal and writing implement with him as he is hidden in the Pinnace, a small bark on the Endeavor, for eighteen days. He does a fine job of describing the increasingly rank smell that emanates off him as he goes unwashed and underfed for almost three weeks while Samuel Evans, Francis Hattie and John Ramsay, the seamen who smuggled Nick aboard for three coins, tend to him when they can. His descriptive skills and curiosity about the new world around him - from the ship to the seas to the foreign lands they visit - make Nick an observant diarist. Once he comes forward and presents himself to Captain Cook, who agrees to make him a mate, Nick is able to describe life on the ship, of which he plays a varied part. From teaching Samuel Evans, the Quartermaster and coxswain of the Pinnace, to read, and charting the course of the Endeavor with the help of John Charlton, the captain's servant, to comforting the lone goat on board as well as the naturalist Mr Banks's greyhounds, Lord and Lady Grey. Nick also finds himself occasional assistant to the supernumeraries, the naturalist, the astronomer, the artist and eventually their Polynesian guide Tupia and his young servant, Tarheto, who becomes Nick's best friend. And, in times of illness, Nick is at the side of Dr William Monkhouse, the surgeon on board, who spends much of his time battling scurvy and, near the end of their voyage, a merciless epidemic of dysentery.  While the crew knows that they are on a mission to take astronomical readings somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, they do not know until they are well underway that they are also on a mission to secretly search for a new continent on the King's Orders.

The subtleties of the voyage of Endeavor might be lost on younger readers or those who do not have a preexisting interest in historical sea voyages. Most of the book is taken up with describing life on the ship, the activities and actions of the men on board and the ways in which they work together and against each other at times. Mr Bootie, a midshipman, takes an immediate dislike to Nick and makes his life painful whenever he can. At times reading about life on board is can be almost as dull as being stuck in a doldrum and waiting for a wind. This is an important part of the book and Hesse conveys this quietude well. However, before the reader is tempted to give up on the book she makes sure to carry the story along on a new wave of action or interest. The Endeavor visits many native peoples on their visits to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia, which they call New Holland. The descriptions of these encounters, not all of which are friendly, are fascinating as are the ways in which the Captain negotiates and trades with the natives, some of whom try to swindle and even steal from him. And there are cannibals. An internet search of images from the times and places that Nick describes would defintitely enhance the reader's enjoyment of this book at this point. 

The final third of the book is hard to put down - from an almost deadly encounter with the Great Barrier Reef to a truly deadly encounter with dysentery when the ship finally makes it to the Dutch colony of  Batavia, Jakarta. Many of the crew, from the lowest to almost the highest ranking sailors, succumb to this horrible disease while waiting for the ship to be repaired so that they can make the six month long journey back to England. As an adult reader, what sustained me throughout was the personality and humanity of Nick Young himself, which is where Hesse's skill as a writer really shines. Almost a year from home, but headed in that direction, Nick and his mates begin to feel a sense of melancholy. Dr Monkhouse tells him that they are all "suffering from a disease called Nostalgia." But Nick wonders how "Tupia and Tarheto must feel? When shall they see their home again?" Nick's empathy is also evident when, two months from home, Lieutenant Hicks dies from a case of consumption that he has had since sailing from England. Nick writes, "He might have survived, though, at least to see home, if it had not been for Batavia. Father apprenticed me to the Butcher to cure me of my soft heart. Surely, with all that I have seen, my heart should be stone by now. And yet I hurt." And, finally, although there is not much room or time on board for the crew to have personal interests and pursuits, Nick brings with him a fascination with birds and a gift for bird calls that he developed shortly after his mother died. At times, his calls and the birds' responses offer cheer to the crew. At other times, solace to Nick alone. On Thursday, September 27th, 1770 Nick writes, "Wind fresh again and bird everywhere in the sky. They cried above us and I cried back to them. Closing my eyes, I felt the shadow of their wings upon my face." And with that, Hesse imbues Nick with a bit of her poetic gifts.

Without a doubt, Karen Hesse's Stowaway is a phenomenal book, both a gripping read and excellent teaching tool. That said, I think that this is also a book that requires a bit of background knowledge in geography and history to make the reading experience that much more valuable. This is a great book for parents and kids to read simultaneously, with parents providing supplemental information and occasional explanations. However, I fear that  Stowaway might also be the kind of book that most readers turn their noses up at precisely for these reasons.

Popular posts from this blog

Fox + Chick: The Sleepover and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier

Be a Tree! by Maria Gianferrari illustrated by Felicita Sala

Reading Levels: A Quick Guide to Determining if a Book Is Right for Your Reader