The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

Mar 26, 2020

If an award was given for "worst cover ever," this book would probably be a top contender. I passed over it many times as a kid at the library because it looked rather dull. I guessed it was about a girl traveling across the ocean. Her voyage looked happy, even pleasant. Look at her serene expression, her hair blowing gently in the breeze, her crisp and frilly outfit. I assumed her "true confessions" were about a secret love interest or some other silly nonsense.

Nothing could be further from the reality of this book.

How about mutiny, murder, and hurricanes on the high seas instead?

Charlotte Doyle has lived most of her life at Barrington School in England, but the time has come for her to return home to Providence, Rhode Island. As such, her father booked her passage on a merchant ship, the Seahawk. The circumstances are not ideal for a refined young woman, but two other families will also be sailing on the ship, so Charlotte will not be alone.

But when she arrives at the dock in Liverpool, she finds out that neither family will be able to make the voyage after all. Not only that, but Charlotte can't even find a porter who is willing to take her trunk to the ship because the name Seahawk has an instant negative effect on everyone who hears it.

With a deep sense of foreboding, but no other alternative, Charlotte boards the ship. Her fears are not allayed: Her cabin is small and cramped, the sailors are coarse and frightening, and she doesn't know how she'll ever maintain proper decorum through such a long journey. One sailor, Barlow, warns her: "You're being here will lead to no good, miss. No good at all. You'd be better off far from the Seahawk." In addition to that, the ship's cook, an old black sailor by the name of Zachariah, offers her a dirk, and you know things can't be good if someone think you may need a knife to protect yourself.

It is also obvious from the very beginning that there is quite a bit of dissatisfaction and unrest among the crew, and it seems to be directed toward the captain, Andrew Jaggery. But Charlotte thinks the captain is the only civilized human on board (besides herself, of course), and she is determined to stay close to him in spite of the warnings from the rest of the crew.

Things come to a head when Charlotte accidentally finds a round robin in the crew's quarters--a type of symbol that signifies unity before a mutiny. Captain Jaggery reveals his true (ugly) colors, and Charlotte instantly switches loyalty, casts away her restricting dresses, and joins the crew.

I don't think my boys would have ever decided to read this book on their own, but it worked perfectly as a readaloud. It had plenty of suspense, adventure, and yes, unfortunately, blood to keep them extremely interested. Almost every chapter ended with a cliffhanger, which made it nearly impossible to find a good place to stop reading each night. They never wanted me to quit in the middle of a chapter, but every time I got to the end, they said, "Mom! You can't stop there! You know you can't stop there." As the climax approached, we had no other choice except to keep reading.

I will say that in spite of the thrilling adventure in this book, I came away severely disappointed by one thing (spoiler ahead):

I kept waiting for the crew to rise up in defense of Charlotte. I had it all worked out in my head: Captain Jaggery would attack her, and just as her fate seemed inevitable, they would rush to her aide in a display of true friendship and loyalty.

But the moment never came.

At first, it was understandable. They were trying to protect Zachariah because he had been one of their mates for years. But even once it was clear that Zachariah was innocent, they remained stoic and impassive, paralyzed by doubt and fear.

Perhaps it was the author's intent to give Charlotte the full spotlight at the end--to demonstrate that a girl doesn't need any help from a bunch of rough and tumble sailors. But even though it made Charlotte look awesome, everyone else (except perhaps Zachariah) was disappointingly weak, and I wouldn't trust any of them for friends in the future. Plus, we're supposed to think that these men who couldn't be bothered to give Charlotte even so much as a nod of encouragement were all of a sudden going to be totally supportive of her becoming captain of the ship? I couldn't buy it.

It was one of those times where I wanted to take the book and rewrite the climax. It could have been so much better. It's not all about girl power. There needs to be a sense of camaraderie and loyalty as well, and that was missing.

(Spoilers over.)

Overall, we all loved it, and the parts that didn't meet our expectations gave us lots to talk about. It was a little advanced for Clark who was rather a fair weather listener. He was always in and out of the room, which meant he sometimes asked questions about the most obvious things: "Who's Captain Jaggery?" (The other boys: "What do you mean, who's Captain Jaggery?!?!?! Only the most evil captain to ever sail the seas.")

Our copy had a slightly updated cover. And even though it still might not be the most tantalizing, that dirk behind Charlotte's back does give you a clue that it will be about more than just salty winds and blue skies.

1 comment:

  1. I think you nailed my dissatisfaction with this story: no adult had her back. Plus, there were so many aspects of the story that were just improbable. It was a disappointment. My 12 year old daughter, who is in a glorious book-devouring phase, read this because I asked her to. She wasn't impressed, but she is finding herself not impressed with a lot of historical fiction.


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