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Tugster has never devoted an entire post to a book, until now. But not every book is this much fun. I chose to do this review not because I was asked or because I plan to start reviewing books as a routine feature (although I might). I read a book that was a great, light, winter-cabin-read that you might like too. It’s The Forgotten Voyage of HMS Baci, whose complete title goes on as “The Quest of Sir Edmund Roberts for Sea Maidens & Masters in the Seven Seas. The Companion Volume to the Sea Maiden Paintings by Robert Kline.”
One of the fascinating currents in the novel is the dialogue between an ancient sailor and the adventuresome, aristocratic naturalist, so I could lengthen the title even more to “or how Sir Edmund, not a sailor but yet a good sort for a gentleman, gets an education albeit reluctantly from an old, grizzled, besotted salt called ‘Gnarly Dan.’” Of course, Sir Edmund had schooling in the arts of painting, sciences, and artillery; Gnarly Dan just complemented that with observations from those watery areas where Sir Edmund was ignorant. An even longer sub-sub title appears on page 10, but you might search that out yourself.
In the first chapter (called “Sighting One,” since the novel is divided into 57 sightings of sea folk), Kline describes Dan as “good hearted and garrulous, filling all voids with words . . . crafted to disseminate his boundless knowledge of all things nautical real or imagined. He spoke at length and without pause of distant lands, whales, flying carpets, magnificent storms, strange peoples, and fantastic animals.” He was so verbose that “[this] source of sea maiden lore [produced] more words than the average individual hears in ten lifetimes.” Understand, though, only toward the end of the novel did Sir Edmund become receptive to Dan’s wisdom; on one occasion early on, the aristocrat, burdened with all the class biases against a sailor’s empirical knowledge, promised Dan that, “if you have the temerity to open your mouth one more time I shall kill you dead. Here. Now. Not once, but twice. And the second time will be more painful than the first.” Silence ensued, for a few minutes.
More on the dialogues of Sir Edmund and Gnarly Dan later, but this tale is ambitious in its search for fun. Take the second word of the title: forgotten. In the world of the novel, this voyage is forgotten aka suppressed, redacted out of official history to avoid some national embarrassments such as the following: HMS Baci was previously known as . . . HMS Bounty. You’re thinking . . . but Fletcher Christian and his mutineers burned Bounty after retreating to Pitcairn Island. Not true in Kline’s novel . . . it’s a cover story. Likewise, did you ever hear about the oldest US warship USS Constitution being hijacked and sailed by bloodthirsty pirate called Naughty Nat and his crew including the nefarious twins Naughty Natalie and Nasty Natalie? Again, that story was suppressed, redacted, and since then forgotten. On the circumnavigation chartered by Sir Edmund, Baci also crosses paths with a certain HMS Beagle engaged in some obscure scientific expedition of its own and an American vessel named Pequod, obsessed with its own commercial or otherwise quest.
As to tools, the 1831 expedition uses a diving bell. While put into Hamilton, Bermuda for repairs and refitting after a skirmish with pirates that also claimed the sanity of the initial Captain Fitzwillie, Sir Edmund discovers an experimental diving bell devised in 1690 by Edmund Halley, he of the comet fame. Many of the dialogues between naturalist and salt take place inside the bell, with references there and elsewhere to Archimedes, Leonardo DaVinci, William Congreves, David Bushnell, and the USS Constellation.
Having gone insane, Captain Fitzwillie gets replaced by none other than his wife, Constance Daphne, described initially as “one of the largest women in London” . . . one who “made but three friends in her adolescence, they being breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” After the erstwhile captain’s demise, Constance Daphne Fitzwillie put everyone including herself on half rations and “pounds fell from her like days from the calendar.” Soon the half-starved Bacis were “to a man prepared to follow their ‘newly svelte’ captain anywhere.” And in rousing the crew to battle, she says, “I have never known a man to use his cannon” . . . uh . . . so well . . . and “It’s a pleasure to see you handle your balls and guns with such skill. My crew gleaming with hard-won sweat and manhandling so much heavy iron is in my thoughts at night.”
Fantastic facts gleaned from the dialogue between Gnarly Dan and the skeptical naturalist include courting habits of sea maidens and masters (a female sea maiden has all the control although a lake maiden is submissive to lake masters), a sea maiden chooses only one mate for life and if that love is lost, she will “rips out the page involvin’ love from her chart book . . . and nary love again.” He also describes a sea maiden’s transformation during pregnancy (her hair turns white for the duration then returns to its normal color post-partum), and even child care. Listen to Gnarly calm Sir Edmund when the naturalist sees hundreds of “unattended” sea babies and fears the worst:
“They mum’s ‘d be out there. They’s hobnobbin’ an; catchin’ up on sea maiden news. They all meets here, then leaves the young ‘uns on the island an’slips off for a watch or two ta just be together an’ chat.
Sir Edmund was adrift. “Why would they do such a thing?” he inquired, obviously at a loss.
Gnarly Dan looked at the naturalist as if he’d been born that morning. “Has his Honor ever been in close quarters with a little ‘un day after day? … Them mums needs ta get away or they’ll go daft. At last count I got ‘bout a dozen little nippers me self an’ a good three year voyage is a nice break. It’s why I goes ta sea.”
Kline sprinkles an ever-so-subtle environmental subtext in relation to some lost sea babies led to their mothers by a sea turtle. Sea maidens leave a trail of bubbles for the babies to follow, we learn; each bubble contains a mother’s sweet air, her unique breath, to lead the baby back home; however, the “river of whale blood and viscera” trailing a vessel like Pequod disrupts the bubble trail and babies get “as lost as a blind man inna gale,” although “all yer sea creatures takes care a one another.”
Robert Kline also does the artwork shown here. Each chapter begins with a line drawing of the maiden, master, or baby sighted in the chapter, but the giclee prints are much more attractive. The prints caught my eye and led me to the book, which I’m glad I bought. I went through the 245 pages in less than two days because it offered me what I wanted around New Year’s, a tall tale. And with the companion art, Kline gives a new sense to what’s today called the graphic novel.
I’m moved to paraphrase Ecclesiastes 3: “A time to every purpose: a time for labor and a time for sleep, for gales and for calms, for pralines and for hard tack, for coffee and for grog. And a season for every type of book: a time for Moby Dick and a time for HMS Baci.”
I’m inviting someone to write a guest review or a relevant movie or book or to suggest media to review.