- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

PIRATE’S PASSAGE

By William Gilkerson

Trumpeter, $17.95,

364 pages

REVIEWED BY PHILIP KOPPER

On the recommendation of a Distinguished Critic, “Treasure Island” became my bedtime reading again — for one night, until Blind Pew made his tap-tap-tap entrance and I drifted off, lulled by the cadence of a remembered classic.

But it must have whet my taste for salty stuff, because days later I took to a book for its cover: the seascape showing a little yawl with red sails reaching off a rocky shore (and a Death’s Head lurking in the storm clouds). Captivated, my imagination bound hand-and-foot, I was shanghaied by “Pirate’s Passage.”

Here is a brand new yarn spun as if in an old ropewalk: A boy named Jim lives with his widowed mother in a seaside inn where a grizzled sailor seeks lodging, and whence they embark on blue-water odysseys, even risking death by modern (yes!) pirates.

Like the classic named above, “Pirate’s Passage” is presumed to be a boy’s book, juvenilia with pictures to boot, but it held this grandfather’s interest to the end. An engaging story is an engaging story, and besides, this one contains a heterodox historical thesis in a candied, concise and historically-accurate survey of piracy from the age of Vikings to this very day.

The tale is told by a man remembering his Nova Scotia boyhood, at the age of 12, when a strange boat sailed smartly through the surf cresting over the bar at the mouth of the village harbor in the teeth of the winter’s first gale in 1952. The only soul aboard Merry Adventure is the grizzled sailor, Captain Charles Johnson, who takes a room in the Admiral Anson Inn for the winter, his rent saving Jim’s mother from a takeover by as venal a landlord-of-the-manor as ever darkened the pages of a moral tale.

Captain Johnson mentors Jim in many matters: How to defang a vicious dog, and navigate through fog, and live life at sea, and life at large. He even tutors the schoolboy for a history project, specifically teaching him scholarly lore and more about piracy and pirates — Drake, Kidd, Blackbeard, Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland, et al. This is a central theme in the plot that moves as regularly as the tides, yet with as many small surprises as the flotsam on a storm-wracked beach.

There is swashbuckling galore, and gore, violence, cannon fire, hidden treasure and even off Cape Cod an instance of bloody piracy as contemporary as made-in-China counterfeit CDs, to say nothing of flirtation and tastefully-told carnality, though all is as G-rated as R. L. Stevenson’s collected works.

Most provocative is the master mariner’s didactic, leftish reading of history as he lectures Jim on how navies evolved (from royally chartered privateers, who evolved from pirates), even that the economic dueling between modern nations resembles piracy once you scrape off the barnacles of our intellectual conventions.

Of course piracy fans, a.k.a. students of the “brotherhood of the coast” (to whom the novel is wryly dedicated), will know Captain Charles Johnson as the pseudonymous author of “The General History of the Pyrates” (1724). He may have been Daniel Defoe or may have been a sea rover who had sailed under the black flag himself.

Who is Jim’s tutor, then? Suffice it that the Flying Dutchman Factor comes into play, and indeed the old salt sets sail again, this time with a pretty maid as crew. And when all is said and done, author and illustrator William Gilkerson steers all the good voyagers of “Pirate’s Passage” to safe moorings in snug harbors.

Philip Kopper, who writes widely about the arts, natural science and history, has rounded Land’s End in a square-rigged ship sailing Royal Navy colors.

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