The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

If you are a parent looking to expand your young daughter's horizons, teaching her that she can do anything that boys can do, but need some good heroines to convey that message, then I might be inclined to recommend The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. It is, essentially, the girl's guide to being a cabin boy. There are diagrams with vocabulary and everything. So many classics might write of young men on ships, but I look to Avi's Charlotte Doyle as the girl who taught me that rebellious young ladies could also partake of such adventure, sailing the high seas and learning a great deal about herself.

The year is 1832. Charlotte Doyle is the daughter of an American businessman, but has lived in England with her family since she was six. Now that her father's work is returning them all to their home in Rhode Island, Charlotte is to finish out her school year and journey to America on her own. She will keep a journal of her experience that her father is to read upon her return home and he will pay particular attention to her spelling. Lest you think her parents are complete idiots, let me assure you that they arranged for Charlotte to be accompanied on her voyage by two upstanding families that her parents know and trust, but even Charlotte is aware that with a long journey ahead of them, this is a bit of an adventure. She has no idea.

The first surprise comes when Charlotte arrives on the ship and learns that the families will not be joining them. Assuming this will delay her voyage, she's further shocked to learn that the little man in her father's employ who is responsible for making sure she reaches the ship sees absolutely nothing improper or wrong about leaving Charlotte totally alone as the only female passenger on a ship full of rugged sailors. Even the mate who receives Charlotte tells the man that he would be better off finding another ship for the girl, but Charlotte is left to her minuscule cabin and feelings of helplessness. By the time she works up the courage to tell the captain that she wants to be put ashore, the ship has left port and nothing but the vast ocean stretches in front of them. If you thought all this was bad for a proper young lady, then just imagine how she'll deal with the fact that the ship's Captain Jaggery has a terribly villainous reputation and the sailors might have all joined up exclusively for the prospect of mutinous revenge.

Indeed, Charlotte has to cope with quite a lot on her voyage, but perhaps the worst of it comes when she realizes she has placed her trust in the wrong person and her actions have severe repercussions for herself and others. Having fallen for Captain Jaggery's genteel manners and status, she realizes that by providing him information about the crew, she has sabotaged their mutiny. This might not be so terrible except one man dies and, in punishment for their actions, Captain Jaggery singles out Charlotte's closest friend on the crew, the elderly black Zachariah, and flogs him to death. Believing that her wrong has cost her friend his life, Charlotte seeks to make amends by joining the crew (now a man short) and becoming a sailor to endure hard labor alongside everyone else. But now with Captain Jaggery turned against her, Charlotte cannot make a single wrong move or her own life might be forfeit.

Ultimately, an adult can look on this book and note that Charlotte is ridiculously lucky in her tenure on the ship, though her courage and determination go a long way, too. Captain Jaggery is a bit one-note in his villainy, though some effort is made to explain his reasoning. Perhaps the most surprising thing is how terribly kind most of the crew is to a young girl seeking to prove herself. This might be the gateway book for parents looking to have their daughters love Treasure Island and other similar seafaring books... or simply those who wish to inspire an interest in sailing. (I picture this as an excellent book to read prior to a visit to Mystic Seaport.) Charlotte's attention to detail on the ship is educational -- indeed, in this re-reading, I found myself clearly remembering the plot but I had forgotten just how much one learns about ships from the text. Charlotte, herself, is a winning heroine -- despite her faults, she always means well and her sense of honor is what drives her to do what some might see as an extreme action. Her subtle struggles with navigating class boundaries and gender/racial issues would make for an interesting discussion with a young person learning about history.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a Newbery Honor book from the early 1990s and it's easy to see why. Young women in a historical setting that defy the socially accepted norm to do something right and honorable. Not a bad message for any time period, though, so I still believe the girls of today might find something of value within. And if nothing else, they'll learn a whole lot of vocabulary about ships.

Post-script! After writing the above, I did a bit of Googling and discovered that there are, indeed, plans to make this into a movie. Buzz seems to suggest that a lawsuit against Danny DiVito (listed as writer/director for the film) held it up, but it could be in theaters in 2011, starring Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte, Morgan Freeman as her friend Zachariah, and Pierce Brosnan as Captain Jaggery. Any film that promotes strong young women is a-okay in my book, so let's hope it turns out well.

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