Friday, November 9, 2007

Historical and Biography: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle


*1991 Newbery Honor Book*

In 1832, leaving England, thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle leaves England and her boarding school to sail to America where her family lives. However, little does she know that she becomes entwined in a mutiny plot aboard the ship the Seahawk, is accused of murder, and becomes part of the crew. Surviving a hurricane, Charlotte finally arrives in American going home to her family, but only to realize that her true home and family is aboard the Seahawk.

Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is an exciting historical novel that is set during the summer of 1832, the protagonist Charlotte Doyle brings the readers along with her has she walks to the docks in Liverpool, England to the deck of the ship the Seahawk, and to her family's household in Providence, Rhode Island. Seen though Charlotte's eyes, the descriptions of these places are vivid and exciting. Such as when walking among the docks she is,
agog[ed] at the mass of ships that lay before us, masts and spars thick as the bristles on a brush. Everywhere I looked I saw mountains of rare goods piled high. Bales of silk and tobacco! Chests of tea! A parrot! A monkey! Oh yes, the smell of the sea was intoxicating to one who knew little more than smell of the trim cut lawns and the fields of the Barrington School (Avi, p. 8)

As fantastic as the docks are, the story primarily set aboard the big ship Seahawk. First as a passenger then as a member of the truth, Charlotte sees all parts of the ship, which include the captain's cabin, the forecastle (the crew's quarters), the hold, the brig (the ship's jail), and even aloft on the mainsail.

The list of characters is quite large. In addition to Charlotte there is the cruel Captain Jaggery, the Seahawks crew, which include important characters such a Zachariah a black man who serves as the ship's cook and surgeon. Despite the large cast, each character has their individual personalities. Charlotte, herself just out of a boarding school, is a polite girl who describes herself at the beginning of her story as having not yet begun the shape, much less the heart of a woman... I certainly wanted to be a lady. It was not just my ambition; it was my destiny"; however, as she lived through the events on that "fateful voyage" she develops into a mature young woman (Avi, p. 1, 3). Captain Jaggery is a man who has a reputation for sailing his ship and crew under a tight and firm rein, and as the story progresses the readers see his anger and rage come to the forefront.

The plot of Avi's book is simple and quite exciting. It is full of actions, such as murders and sailing through hurricanes. There is even surprising twists to the story. Because of his past actions against the crew, Captain Jaggery is the subject of a mutiny and murder plot by the crew. They are to avenge the cruel death of a fellowship mate from a previous voyage. Mutinies, especially due to the actions of the ship's captains, is fairly common part of sailing during this period of time.

There are several themes seen in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, which reflect the many of the classic themes found in literature. There is the theme of the triumph of good versus evil. A second theme is the revenge, which is fueled by the Seahawk crew. Finally, there is the classic coming of age aspect to Charlotte, who boards the ship in England as a girl but arrives in Rhode Island as a woman with experiences that no normal woman would have never gone through let alone survive.

The style of the book is well formated. Charlotte is the narrator and is told in a recollection approach. In the story she states that her father had requested her to write in a journal during her voyage, and like a dutiful daughter she does. She recounts truthly all the happens aboard the Seahawk. To begin the story, she provides "An Important Warning" describing that this is a true story and that the she initially believed that her voyage was to be a "lark" (Avi, p. 3). This is also the first area that there is a sense of foreshadowing. The book is also separated into two parts. The first part is where the story that leads up to Charlotte's decision to become part of the crew after witnessing her friend Zachariah's death by the hand of the captain. The second part relays her story as a sailor and the events that follow.

The mannerisms and the speech of the characters reflect the time period wonderfully. Charlotte described herself, after attending the boarding school, speaks properly and had the ultimate goal in life to become the woman that her parents wanted her to be. Although seasoned sailors, the crew also have a level of gentlemanly manners. In the first part of the book, they addressed Charlotte as Miss Doyle and were conscious of their use of language around her.

The difference language and speech patterns also illustrations the different social classes during that time. Charlotte and Captain Jaggery spoke in a manner that represented education and a higher social class, and the Seahawk crew's represented the lower social classes that was not properly educated. The example of this is also seen in the mannerisms of Charlotte's family. Her younger siblings and mother make comments on Charlotte's tanned, rough hand, and short hair appearance. Her father barks orders at the housemaids. Even Charlotte had recognized that she had acted nearly the same at the beginning of her voyage; however, once in Rhode Island, she had entered the level of her crew mates and did not care if there was a social difference between her and the family's housemaids.

To finish the book, Avi provides an Appendix that provides a diagram of the Seahawk and a description of how the Ship Times that explains how the crew worked in watches throughout the day. With all of these fantastic details, Avi has written a fantastic historical fiction that will grab any reader who picks it up.

Told in the form of a recollection, these ``confessions'' cover 13-year-old Charlotte's eventful 1832 transatlantic crossing. She begins her trip a prim schoolgirl returning home to her American family from England. From the start, there is something wrong with the Seahawk : the families that were to serve as Charlotte's chaperones do not arrive, and the unsavory crew warns her not to make the trip. When the crew rebels, Charlotte first sides with the civilized Captain Jaggerty, but before long she realizes that he is a sadist and--the only female aboard--she joins the crew as a seaman. Charlotte is charged with murder and sentenced to be hanged before the trip is over, but ends up in command of the Seahawk by the time it reaches its destination. Charlotte's repressive Puritanical family refuses to believe her tale, and the girl returns to the sea. Charlotte's story is a gem of nautical adventure, and Avi's control of tone calls to mind William Golding's 1980s trilogy of historical novels of the sea. Never wavering from its 19th century setting, the novel offers suspense and entertainment modern-day readers will enjoy. Ages 11-13. (September 14, 1990)

A breathtaking seafaring adventure, set in 1832. Charlotte Doyle, 13, returning from school in England to join her family in Rhode Island, is deposited on a seedy ship with a ruthless, mad captain and a mutinous crew. Refusing to heed warnings about Captain Jaggery's brutality, Charlotte seeks his guidance and approval only to become his victim, a pariah to the entire crew, and a convicted felon for the murder of the first mate. There is no doubt that she will survive, however, for the telling is all hers, masterfully related in a voice that perfectly suits the period and the heroine. At first, Charlotte exudes the haughty self-confidence and the need for propriety that only those of privilege and wealth can pull off, yet she also exhibits the naivete of an adolescent taught to respect and not question her elders--as long as they are of her class. As she sees the insane captain for what he is, she switches allegiances--thus endangering her life--and becomes part of the crew, passing their rugged tests and proving that she can become as adept as any of them. Her changing views and personality from a prim and proper pain to respected friend and mate are aptly reflected in her narrative, and the point of view gives Avi excellent opportunities for some fine foreshadowing. The irony at the end--that indeed her beloved papa is very much like the captain, tyrannical and unyielding--will leave readers agape, and they will sigh with relief when she deserts her very rigid family and returns home--to the ship. A sensuous novel, evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of the ship and the sea; the moods of captain and crew; the terror and bloodshed caused by the captain; and the nature of friendship and loyalty. --Trev Jones, School Lib. Journal (September 1, 1990)

*Have a discussion with the group that answers questions about the book's plot, style, themes, and characters, such as the topic of change in traditional gender roles.
*Ask the group what would they have done if they were in a situation like Charlotte.
*Read Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman and have the group compare the two stories.
*Learn more about sailing and ship during the 19th century with books like The World's Sailing Ships by Camil Busquets.

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