On Stormy Seas

by B. Gillespie,
ISBN: 0920663125

The Solitary Slocum:
Captain Joshua Slocum

by Robert Blondin, Hedley King,
196 pages,
ISBN: 1551090023

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Fictional Fakes
by Donald Swainson

THERE CAN be no doubt that both George Vancouver and Joshua Slocum are eminently worth writing about. Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) was an English explorer and navigator who sailed with Captain James Cook on Cook's famous second and third voyages. In 1791 he obtained his own command, and between then and 1795 explored and charted North America's Pacific coast. Among his many notable achievements was the provision of proof that Vancouver Island was indeed an island, rather than an extension of the British Columbia coast, and it is appropriate that his memory is honoured by such key place-names as "Vancouver" and "Vancouver Island." Joshua Slocum (1844-1909) was a Nova Scotia sailor who emigrated to California, where he became an American citizen. He was an important merchant seaman totally dedicated to sail -as opposed to steam - power. But technology passed him by, and as a means of demonstrating his rejection of steam, his love of sail, and his own brilliance as a sailor, he sailed his little 37 - foot boat, the Spray, around the world in 1895. He did this alone, and was apparently the first person to accomplish such a feat.

Both men did amazing things, and their respective stories are rife with crisis, excitement, and passion. Vancouver circumnavigated the globe between 1791 and 1795. For several years he lived with 100 sailors aboard the Discovery; they faced terrible seas, scurvy, loneliness, serious privation, and mortal danger from various Natives who were perhaps less than enthusiastic about being "discovered." Along the way, Vancouver visited such exotic sites as the Hawaiian Islands, the fabulous British Columbia coast, and the Chilean settlements of Valparaiso and Santiago, as he successfully brought the Discovery and a companion ship around both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. Slocum led an interesting life sailing both the Pacific and Atlantic. He faced business instability, mutinous crew members, shipwreck, and all the perils associated with sailing small vessels on big seas. Without question his solitary circumnavigation of the globe was an exciting event, filled with danger and high adventure.

Unfortunately, B. Guild Gillespie's On Stormy Seas: The Triumphs and Torments of Captain George Vancouver and Robert Blondin's The Solitary Slocum do not do justice to their subjects. The key problem seems to be the lack of evidence concerning the private lives and personalities of Captain Vancouver and Mr. Slocum. This kind of evidence is crucial to the books by Gillespie and Blondin because they have been written for a popular readership. Their solution to this evidential shortfall is simple: they make it up. This is done quite openly: the publisher's blurb that comes with Gillespie's book describes it as "creative non-fiction," while Blondin classifies his book as "an apocryphal 'autobiography': reconstructed from pieces of a puzzle found in the attic of our hero's legend."

Fake non-fiction has serious and obvious problems, but in theory it should be at least potentially interesting. These authors do not manage eve that. The book about George Vancouver is allegedly narrated by George's brother, John. The result is a fawning account of a great man who was never given adequate recognition while still alive. Central to the plot is the background of this lack of recognition and the conspiracy that prevented Vancouver from receiving any acknowledgement of his greatness in London. What we are given is more than 200 pages of whining. The Solitary Slocum is presented as an autobiography. Slocum portrays himself as a shallow, ambitious person who sacrifices himself on the altar of opposition to change. His hunger for fame and recognition seems blatantly egomaniacal. Neither man comes across as particularly interesting, which makes these two volumes a good deal less than gripping.

Books like these raise an important question of ethics. Both Vancouver and Slocum were real people who led real lives, and presumably even dead people should retain some rights. Is it fair to invent, without any evidence, their ambitions and torments? Should they be given manufactured sex lives? Is it just to present detailed portraits of these sailors' characters on the basis of "creative non-fiction" and "apocryphal 'autobiography"'? This reviewer replies in the negative to each question. These are unsuccessful works whether taken as fiction or non-fiction.


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