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Tom Chaney: An Island in the Stream

Of Writers and Their Books. Essay on Ship and Boat Novels An Island in the Stream Published earlier in the Hart County Herald, 30 October 2005
The next earlier Tom Chaney essay, Understanding the Enemy

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

Islands in the Stream

Reading Ben Lucian Burman and his Catfish Bend stories set me to thinking about ship and boat novels. I aimed to look at another quite different Burman book, but it has vanished into the maw of my disorder. I'll find it and get to it later.

In the meantime I want to consider voyages on river boats or ships as a useful tool for the writer of fiction. It is useful -- for the vessel on the water is a neat way of setting the boundaries of a fictional world. It is akin to William Faulkner's defining of Yoknapatawpha County as his world.

But with a novel set upon a river or ocean, the limits are more clearly defined.

Several writers come to mind.

There is Mark Twain. Early in life Samuel L. Clemens fell in love with the Mississippi. A stint as a cub pilot became the nucleus for his Life on the Mississippi, an account of those golden days on the river just prior to the Civil War. Later, he returned to the river with the mythic journey of Huck Finn and Jim as they escape Huck's being "all smothered" by Aunt Polly and Jim's peonage as a slave.

Huck and Jim board a raft and go "booming down the Mississippi" in one of the great adventures in American literature. Their plan is to escape slavery by sailing down the Mississippi to its junction with the Ohio, then raft up the Ohio to the free states.

Of course they miss the Ohio and float on down the big river into the heart of slave territory.

For Huck and Jim, the river and the raft are places of peace and contentment. When they are forced to go ashore they confront all of the ills of society -- greed, racial prejudice, lynchings among them. When they return to the river it is to escape the clutches of "civilization," as Huck calls it with a sneer. Indeed, he says, "It's mighty peaceful on a raft."

A contemporary of Mark Twain wrote what I think is the pinnacle of American sea stories. Herman Melville's Moby Dick takes place aboard a New England whaling ship as the monomaniacal Captain Ahab takes his crew aboard the Pequod in search of the great white whale, Moby Dick. The whale has taken Ahab's leg in their last encounter and the captain is out for revenge -- taking his entire ship and crew down to their watery graves save for Ishmael. Ishmael, echoing the messenger in the biblical story of Job, escapes to bring the message, "I, only, am escaped alone to tell thee."

In Moby Dick the reader is treated, not only to an exciting sea adventure, but also to a Melvillian cosmos of the sea and whaling.

Moby Dick is not the only sea adventure to come from Melville's productive pen. His tales of sailing in the south seas, Typee and Omoo, are fine adventure stories of the sea as well.

I think my favorite of the Melville lot is not Moby Dick, as much as I relished the vivid whaling scenes and the fires of the shipboard forge. I go back, over and over again to the short novella Billy Budd, Foretopman.

The innocent Billy is finally hanged for a crime he did not commit on the word of the jealous mate, Claggart, by Captain Vere who is torn between the beauty and innocence of Billy and what he thinks he must do. The hanging of Billy Budd is akin to the crucifixion of the innocent Christ taking the sins of the ship upon his back.

Moving away from American writers to British tales of the sea, two sets of novels have caught my fancy over the years.

During a period of enforced idleness some years ago, I found the C. S. Forrester Horatio Hornblower novels. I tried to read them in order as the young Hornblower rises through the ranks of the British navy during the Napoleonic era. They make for a fine escape for a summer's idyll.

Recently, I have been introduced to the sea novels of Patrick O'Brian. The Aubrey/Maturin Series runs to some twenty-odd novels recounting the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey, a skillful sailor from the era of Hornblower, and his friend Stephen Maturin, a physician and spy in his majesty's service.

Perhaps you have seen the 2003 movie taken from the novels, "Master and Commander."

Again, we have the confined universe of the ship, often in contrast to the tentacles of the shore.

At present, I am at book four. There is much reading yet to do -- and much buckling of swash along the way.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749 (270) 786-3084
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2010-12-26 04:56:49
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