And Then I Read: THE DARK CANOE

© Scott O’Dell, illustrations © Milton Johnson.

I came to Scott O’Dell, as did many, as a reader of his Newbery Award winning historical novel, “The Island of the Blue Dolphins” in 1960, when I was 9 years old. I enjoyed that book, a sort of real-life Robinson Crusoe tale of a native American girl who was stranded on an island off the coast of California for 18 years, and how she managed to survive. I tried a few other books by O’Dell in my teen years, and didn’t like them as well, but I’ve come to appreciate him much more as a writer in my later years. O’Dell’s books all take a grimly realistic look at people, their motivations and hardships, in various historical settings, often in the California area. His characters come to life wonderfully well, and if his stories can be hard to read at times, it’s more because we like his characters and hate to see them suffer, which they often seem to do.

For instance, in this book, a crew of whalers from New England are in Magdalena Bay, Baja California, searching for the Amy Foster, a whaling ship that went down there with a full load of valuable whale oil and ambergris. The wrecked ship had been captained by Caleb Clegg, one of those on board this ship, The Alert, and in charge of the search. The narrator is Nathan, Caleb’s 16-year-old brother, serving as cabin boy. Their other brother, Jeremy, was with them, but has vanished mysteriously in the night, and is thought likely to be dead, though no one knows how. Caleb is a troubled man, almost mad at times, but intent on finding the Amy Foster, not because of the treasure it might hold, but because the ship’s log book, if found, might vindicate his own actions and show he was not heedless of the coming storm that sank the ship.

So, it’s a treasure-hunt, of a sort, but one in which no one is having a good time. The crew have been at it for long weeks, getting nowhere. Jeremy, their captain when they embarked, is missing. Caleb is disliked by them, acting captain Troll not liked much better. There are natives around who might pose a threat or be a help, it could go either way. Mutinous talk is muttered in the corners. Young Nathan is full of worries, but his focus is finding out what happened to his missing brother. Then an odd coffin-shaped box appears, floating next to the ship, and Nathan manages to hide it on the shore. One of the crew who Nathan considers a friend helps him open the box, and they expect to find treasure inside, but only uncover a few worthless articles. When Caleb is told, Caleb’s fixation on the book “Moby Dick” gives the box another, stranger explanation, one that the facts seem to vindicate. Could it be the box from that story, or one like it, that allowed the book’s narrator, Ishmael, to escape with his life in that story?

Later, when the wreck is finally found, the plot thickens, and the natives Nathan visits hold answers to at least some of his questions. Others may never be answered. Caleb’s quest is the most interesting, but when he finds the log book, will the answers it provides ease his troubled mind?

I enjoyed reading this book a great deal, with one exception. I thought the line illustrations by Milton Johnson were just about the worst I’ve ever seen, example above. They do nothing for the story except bring it to a grinding halt while one tries to figure out what these scribbly messes are supposed to be. I don’t like his cover painting much better, but at least it’s clearly a ship on the water!

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