Fuse #8

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Review of the Day: Hero of the High Seas - John Paul Jones and the American Revolution

Picture me at age twelve. Now picture me at age twelve given a school assignment to read a biography of a Revolutionary War hero that is at least 100 pages long. Now picture me at age twelve staring in horror at the biography section of my local library. That fate, strange as it may seem, is repeated regularly all around the United States of America and it’s enough to give any sane soul nightmares for weeks on end. As a kid I was not a non-fiction fan. If it didn’t have anything to do with albinos (this is true) I wasn’t interested. So I hold Michael L. Cooper’s, “Hero of the High Seas”, in my hands and attempt to show it to my twelve-year-old self, who still resides somewhere in the left-hand corner of my brain.

Me 28: What do you think? It looks kind of neat.
Me 12: Is that a map on the cover?
Me 28: Oh calm down. Like you’ve never looked at a map before. Now open it up. See all the cool photos inside?
Me 12: Everything’s brown. Why is everything brown?
Me 28: That’s not brown. It’s called “sepia”. Come on. Read the first chapter. I know you’ll like it if you do.
Me 12: Uh... who’s Senator John McCain?
Me 28: No, no. Not the Foreword. Read the next part.
Me 12: Oooh. An Introduction. How thrilling.
Me 28: Put a lid on the sarcasm, young lady. Skip that too.
Me 12: Make up your mind.
Me 28: Just read Chapter One.
Me 12: (all huffy now) Fine. (long pause). It’s okay.

Which, as far as I can ascertain, is the highest praise my non-non-fiction self could have come to praising this book. It’s probably not a title for every kid you know, but as bios of Revolutionary War heroes go, a person could find much drier fare covering the same information. At least in this case you get floggings, accusations of murder, swordfights, mutiny, and all of that is just in the first seven pages. John Paul Jones was, according to Herman Melville, “intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in external but a savage at heart.” All the characteristics, as it happens, that make for the best biographies. And Mr. Cooper, all praise deserved, knows just how to best display his heroically flawed subject.

Let's cover the basics right off the bat. He was born John Paul in southwest Scotland in 1747. And as his father was just a gardener, John decided to better his lot in life by becoming a sailor right from the start. He rose quickly to prominence and was the captain of his own ship at the remarkably young age of 21. Then came an unfortunate incident in the Caribbean and Jones (as he now was known) came to America to start anew. With the dawn of the Revolutionary War, the man became notorious for his risky behavior and his sometimes foolhardy courage, both contributing significantly to the legend that now surrounds him. As such, author Michael Cooper meticulously separates fact from fiction while managing to retain the aura of heroism surrounding this notable American figure.

Michael Cooper leaps head first into the action surrounding Jones’s life, choosing to begin his story with a violent incident that caused Jones to flee to America sans ship. So right off the bat you may not know who John Paul Jones was, but hearing about his battle against mutinous sailors you know that he’s a guy worth learning more about. Of course Mr. Cooper doubles back after the first thrilling moments of the story, but his choice to begin the book in this manner shows that he knows his audience. Give the people what they want and extra points if you happen to be able to work in a few facts in there as well. This isn’t the only concession to his young audience Cooper makes either. The book’s a trim 128 pages and it isn’t one of those bios that languishes for long periods of time over the brand of powder Jones used on his wig or the interior mechanics of a schooner or gunner.

But really, it’s the way Cooper chooses to tie together his information that lifts this from a standard here-are-the-facts-about-this-man’s-life bio to something with a little more meat to it. For example, Jones was not particularly perturbed by tensions between America and England. Why not? Well, he was Scottish for one thing. And Jones had been born two years before the “Rising of 1745.” Basically, rebellions were no new thing to him. Cooper also keeps his speculations to a minimum. There’s nothing worse than reading a bio where an author will launch into long strings of dialogue justified with a mild this-might-have-occurred (I’m looking at YOU, Sid Fleischman). The closest Cooper ever gets to this is to bring up what Jones and John K. Read might have discussed amongst themselves in terms of politics and general philosophy. Fairly safe assumptions, to say the least. I was also amused by little details like Benjamin Franklin, who irritated people on a regular basis (according to Joan Dash’s, “A Dangerous Engine”, anyway), advising Jones on how to get along with others. Heck, the caricature of Jones as a pirate may be worth the price of admission alone.

I was also interested in the number of times that Cooper would feel it necessary to clarify to the reader that in spite of his ambition and selfishness, John Paul Jones did feel a loyalty to the United States. As he was born a Scotsman, the responsible biographer (in this case, Mr. Cooper) must make it quite clear that this “hero” was not a mere mercenary in it for the pay and prestige. This job becomes all the more difficult when you take into account the fact that Mr. Jones really was in it for the pay and prestige. He just happened to like America as well. How do we know this? The clearest evidence to my eyes is a section in which Cooper recounts how Jones was forced during the war to captain a ship created for the sole purpose of capturing fellow ships for the monetary gain. Again and again Jones works to reach his military goals, only to be thwarted or delayed by his money hungry crew. A captain in it for the gold could have worked in tandem with such men and made his fortune as a true legalized pirate (as his foes would call him). Instead, Jones was in it for the war and not the moolah. It helps all the more that Mr. Cooper knows to make this distinction clear.

Ship books, for the record, are huge this year. From Janet Taylor Lisle’s, “Black Duck” to Graham Salisbury’s, “The House of Red Fish”, more fiction for children is working on the assumption that kids want to know the nitty gritty details of sailing and seafaring. This particular book actually kept reminding me of Susan Cooper’s, “Victory”. In the female Cooper’s book we see the Battle of Trafalgar through the eyes of a ship’s powder monkey. In “Hero of the High Seas” we view very similar battles, but from the standpoint of those making the decisions in a war rather than simply carrying those orders out. If I were to pair this bio with any work of fiction, I’d certainly place it alongside Ms. Cooper’s tale. They may speak of different wars and nationalities, but the time periods are mere decades apart and the battles themselves complement one another nicely.

If I’ve any objection to “Hero of the High Seas” maybe it lies in some of those aforementioned battle sequences. There’s a section in Chapter Three where Jones is sailing the Alfred alongside the Columbus, Cabot, Andrew Doria, and Providence so as to engage with the Glasgow. The child reader who goes through this section had better keep very clear the fact that Cooper mentioned much earlier that all five ships were American and that the Glasgow was British. I myself floundered about, trying to keep everything straight during the battle and yet I had to backtrack several times to keep clear the bevy of names. Perhaps some judicious pruning (or, better still, reminding) would make this section easier for dim-witting adults like me as well as clever ship-loving children.

So how do you convince kids to read this book? For all the beauty of its packaging, National Geographic Press has succeeded in giving Cooper's tale the adult book look. 47-year-olds will think the cover looks neat. Anyone under the age of 19, however, may give it a glance and then run for the high hills. Part of a children’s librarian’s lot in life is to do booktalks wherein that librarian convinces kids of a book’s readability. In the case of “Hero of the High Seas”, I suggest stressing the overwhelming odds that Jones faced. I mean, he was part of an infant nation facing England’s, “strongest navy in the world.” Or you could mention how they found his grave in the basement of a French laundry in 1905 with his body so intact that they could make out his deformed ear. Whatever it takes, it’s worth it. The book is a great read and a quick one to boot. Succinct and entirely pleasant. Worth including on your non-fiction shelf.

Notes On the Cover: As I mentioned before, this is an adult cover slapped on top of a children’s book. It’s classy, yes. But on a scale of one to ten with ten being the most kid-friendly and one being the least I’d give this cover a big old three. It’s pleasant to the eye, but it’ll take a special child to find this book enticing enough to give a glance.

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