Review of the Day: Victory
Certain authors publish with an aura of definite mystique. Lloyd Alexander, for one, can still elicit a certain thrill when his books sit on a shelf. Ditto Philip Pullman. But of all these fellows, not a one of them can hold a candle to the majesty and plum good writing of Ms. Susan Cooper. Her "The Dark Is Rising" sequence is still the go to series when it comes to Celtic myth and Arthurian legend. It was with great shock that I discovered a couple years ago that not only had she written comic pieces (as with "The Boggart") and time travel ("King of Shadows") but that she was STILL WRITING. Somehow I'd assumed "The Dark Is Rising" books were written decades ago solely for my own enjoyment and that the author had long since passed on to another world. Hardly. It is fortunate indeed that "Victory" proves how wrong I was. Not quite a time travel book, but not quite realistic fiction either, this latest Cooper saga follows two children, inexplicably tied to one another. And while it's not the author's finest work, there's no denying the fine fabulous writing that has gone into it.
Molly's world has fallen totally and irreparably apart. A logical girl, she understands why she and her family have moved from London, England to Connecticut. She knows that her new stepfather and stepbrother are fine fellows and that her house and room are bigger and more beautiful than anything she's ever had before. She knows this. However, Molly is so homesick for England that she'll hold on to anything that might tie her to it as if it were a lifeline. When a book of the life of Lord Nelson falls into her possession, Molly starts finding herself connected to the life of a boy who lived hundreds of years before her own. Sam Robbins was, during the time of the Napoleonic wars, pressed into serving on Horatio Nelson's ship. Once he is on The Victory, Sam finds himself both horrified and awed by his experience as one of the crew's powder monkeys. Told in alternating chapters, the book charts Molly's journey back to her former home to visit The Victory today, and Sam's journey over the seas on the boat he would soon regard as his own.
Because the book is shifting continually between the present and the past, Cooper sometimes writes herself into an interesting predicament. On the one hand you have Molly, who's misery is palpable. Cleverly, Cooper allows the reader to feel the child's homesickness and sheer unhappiness just as if it were their own. We are utterly sympathetic. At the same time, though, Cooper has coupled this tale alongside Sam's story. There is a moment in the book where Sam has just been forced to wear an iron bar in his mouth for three days as punishment for something he mistakenly did. He cannot eat or drink or sleep and the bar cuts painfully into his skin, drawing blood. The chapter ends after the bolt is removed and suddenly we're back with Molly who's problems, let's face it, shrivel up and dry in the face of Sam's agony. As I read the book I wondered if Cooper was aware that the reader might not sympathize with Molly as keenly once they'd been introduced to Sam's torturous situation. I needn't have feared. I suspect that Cooper knew exactly what she was doing when she paired Sam's tale with that of Molly's because at that moment the reader starts to feel that the Molly dilemma can only be solved if she herself understands how small her problems really are. The climax comes when Molly does realize this in an almost violent but necessary fashion.
A co-worker of mine started reading the book, but stopped when she found it dull. I was fascinated by this reaction, especially since I've been wondering how kids would react to this story. Would they be bored? Thrilled? I think Molly's contemporary tale is definitely necessary. I suppose the first image of the funeral march for Lord Nelson might be a bit slow as beginnings go, but once Molly is thrown head over heels into the ocean as her step-brother and step-father sail, the tale definitely picks up. Of course, it's filled to brimming with ship terms. And there's quite a lot of discussion of how the ship is laid out. Interestingly enough I kept suddenly envisioning the layout of the ships found in "The Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. I suspect that if you wanted to make a reader reluctant to pick up this story, just explain to them that there are ship fights similar to those in the "Pirates" movies. I can't guarantee that that would work, but it's certainly worth a shot.
But you know, it's just all about the writing, isn't it? The little moments that separate the good books from the so-so ones. Cooper has a couple of those up her sleeve. One of the story's more touching details is the fact that Molly adores her new little baby step-brother, Donald. At one point the family is on the Tube in London and Donald is alarmed by the loud noises. Molly plays peek-a-boo with him to cheer him up. "All the surrounding grownups watch, with nostalgia soft in their faces, except one thin man in a tight dark suit, who retreats behind a newspaper with a disdainful sniff". I could never tell you why, but that's one of my favorite moments in the book. Cooper's writing never lightens the story's tough situations, by the way. Sam is pressed into service with the Navy against his will and the ship situation is gritty, gory, and thoroughly unpleasant. Just the same, you get a hint of why Sam felt that it should become his life's work, no matter what.
Boy, I sure hope that a huge swath of kids today are Anglophiles. Between "Endymion Spring" trying to convince them that Oxford is a hip youth hang-out and Ms. Cooper giving us a hearty heaping of Lord Nelson facts, the time has never been better to be enamored of all things English. With it's almost too tasteful cover and whopping great amounts of historical fiction ah-flowing through its gills, "Victory" is probably not going to be the first book the kids pick up when they walk into a library or bookstore. For those with a penchant for both history and realism, however, they may well find much to love here. Enjoyable indeed.