Seen through the eyes of John Jacob Turnstile, a 14 year old boy, the story of this ill-fated ship takes on a different light than in previous versions. John was commissioned to work as the servant of the ship’s captain after he was given the choice of either spending a year in jail for stealing a gentleman’s pocket watch or boarding ship. Having no previous experience with sailing but being familiar with prison, John chose the former.
Most people know what happened with the Bounty so I won’t describe the journey, but John’s experiences as he tells his own story aboard ship is fascinating. He is soon nicknamed Turnip and describes the voyage trying to round the Cape of Good Horn, the drudgery of living on a ship, the storms and arguments between shipmates as well as the hazing as a rite of passage as the ship crossed the equator. As sailors are a suspicious lot, the ritual of appeasing whatever ‘gods’ there may be must be completed with the a sacrificial ‘sea lamb’ and Turnip, being the lowest in status was unceremoniously plucked from his bunk in the middle of the night to satisfy this necessary event. As he stands confused and accused of some unknown misdeed on deck, the beginning of a hair-raising ordeal starts. From page 131:
‘Before you is King Neptune,’ said one of the sailors around me and I frowned and shook my head. ‘Tremble in his presence, slimy pollywog, tremble!’
‘He never is,’ said I. ‘He’s John Williams, his as looks after the mizzen-sail.’
The book has a good measure of humour as seen from the unconscious response to his accuser. For all of his past thievery and other misdeeds, John Jacob Turnstile is a frightened boy, struggling to endure in an environment that is way out of his element. But he deals with it and learns the best way to survive is to keep his eyes and ears open.
About the only thing that gave me a slight pause with this novel was the consistency – I was a bit confused with John’s background. Early on, the reader finds out that he was raised by the dastardly Mr. Lewis, and John’s first memories are of Mr. Lewis when John was five or six. But later on, it’s written that he was ‘sold’ to Mr. Lewis at the age of 9 by a woman who’d taken care of him up until then. Later still, Mr. Lewis is referred to again in reference to when John was younger than nine. I thought at that point the earlier inconsistencies would be explained somehow, but they weren’t. That managed to take me out of the story, but just a bit. And despite that, I really enjoyed this book. It had all the elements to the sort of novel I really like: adventure, history, and humour. The author’s storytelling reminds me a bit of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series and I really loved those books. And though this book is just shy of 500 pages, it took me just a few days to read it – it was that compelling. I highly recommend it!
You can read another review of this book at a bookworms world.