George J. Galloway,
The Powder Monkey
(1stBooks, 2008)

Books like The Powder Monkey make me a little sad.

This first novel by George J. Galloway came close to being an impressive debut. But published by 1stBooks, a vanity press since renamed AuthorHouse, this book lacks the very thing it needed most: editorial supervision.

I'm not talking about the shameful number of mistakes in spelling, punctuation and grammar that slipped through. I'm talking about the guy who should have sat down with George and pointed out a few things. Like, for instance:

• It shouldn't take more than 100 pages of a 300-page book to get Michael, the eponymous powder monkey, onto a ship. (And, once there, he should spend a little more time as a powder monkey.)

• The route it takes to get a girl disguised as a boy onboard that ship is needlessly circuitous and improbable. Many problems would be solved if the author simply had her disguise herself, sign on and tell no one her secret.

• That dreadful pidgin Irish dialect spoken by Uncle Bob is embarrassingly awkward, potentially offensive and, spoken aloud, sounds nothing like a brogue.

• There's no way a seasoned privateer ship's captain on a dangerous mission would be that solicitous of the needs of an inexperienced boy, a scheming girl or a drunken captain of marines, no matter how altruistic their motives might be.

• Liberty Island wasn't called Liberty Island in the 1800s.

Turn a blind eye to these and other flaws, and The Powder Monkey could have been a pretty good first book.

Michael Dooley is an apprentice cooper in his father's shop in Baltimore when a series of disasters strikes his family: his mother dies of a fever, his father is pressed by a British ship, and the outbreak of the War of 1812 places his father on the enemy's side of the fighting. It doesn't help that Michael's Uncle Bob is a drunk or that 12-year-old Michael is left to run the family business alone.

So Michael decides to go to sea, figuring if he helps to win the war, his father will come home. Michael's uncle joins him, as does Jessica, the orphan girl who fancies him. They all end up on a vessel that easily evades the British blockade of the Chesapeake and easily takes every British merchant ship it finds.

Along the way, they decide to invade Ireland. They succeed, fairly easily.

Worse still, most of the action takes place off-page. We're told something happened, but we don't get to see it.

It's worth noting that Galloway places his characters on the Chasseur, an actual privateer ship commanded by Capt. Thomas Boyle. The accomplishments of that ship and crew are a remarkable story; it's a shame Galloway felt the need to exaggerate it so -- to the point of making the Chasseur almost solely responsible for winning the war and her crew, almost to a man, responsible for the heroic defense of New York's crucial Lake Champlain against a massive British invasion force.

I can't say I enjoyed this book. The ship is just too good, her captain too lucky and pretty much everyone you meet just too deucedly nice. Galloway tosses in a villain every now and then, seemingly as an afterthought, but it doesn't erase the feeling that everyone in the world wants to help out young Michael, the poor boy. And gosh, he's just so darn likable, you want him to do well.

The worst moment comes when Galloway asks us to believe that a happy and successful crew, with a vast fortune in prize money awaiting them in port, would mutiny over a spot of bad weather. This mishandled scene was contrived, apparently, just to put poor Jessica in a bit of anticlimactic peril.

But it's not all Galloway's fault. A good editor would have sat him down for a chat, sent him home for a rewrite or two, and possibly helped him to produce a better book. The nuggets are there, sadly unrefined.

Better luck next time, George.

book review by
Tom Knapp

24 July 2010

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