(Reposted from Blogjob)
Book Review: Captain Blood
Author: Rafael Sabatini
Date: 1922, 1946
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Length: 307 pages
Quote: “Peter Blood was brought to trial, upon a charge of high treason. We know that he was not guilty of this; but we need not doubt that he was quite capable of it by the time he was indicted.”
Charged with treason for treating a patient from the opposition party, young Dr. Blood is sold as a slave in Barbados. He soon takes advantage of the constant skirmishes between European colonial interests to commandeer a pirate ship and become Captain Blood, a pirate with a sense of honor.
I know a better story about a real British political dissident who was sold as a slave in Barbados; less dramatic, but true. Condemned to years of penal servitude before he could earn his freedom, he served his time, earned his freedom, stayed in Barbados, and became the ancestor of several gifted people, one of whom was married to me while living. British political dissidents were enslaved in the colonies for years...until enough Brits were in the colonies to make colonial life attractive enough that this “punishment” no longer worked.
But Captain Blood is a fairly clean adventure story; without being unbearably pious or preachy, the hero manages to deserve most of the good luck Sabatini gives him, and recover after making his big mistake. I will admit that, reading it for the first time in my forties, I did keep thinking “Why wasn’t this novel selected for a Clueless makeover?”, but neither did I choke on improbabilities...probably because, as a child of the twentieth century, I have no idea what a battle between sailing ships at sea was really like.
It’s hard not to like a hero who risks his chance at respectability in order to secure a better share of the profits for his crew, even though I wonder whether anything like that happened in the early seventeenth century, and think it marks Captain Blood as an early-twentieth-century invention. Another quaint touch of the period is that although the characters are adults, and there’s a hint of romance throughout the story, there’s never more than a hint; by the end of the story we know which of the three female characters Blood is going to marry, but the story does not end with a kiss. Then there’s the matter of Blood’s spiritual life; in a period when Catholic versus Anglican identity was a serious political issue over which people literally fought and died, we’re told that Blood “was a papist only when it suited him,” but he takes his Catholic ethics very seriously. This was not unknown, although it was rare, in the seventeenth century.
Still, Sabatini’s main claim to fame, while living, was that he wrote novels middle school boys would read—at the time. Now, apparently, few middle school boys read his novels. If you are a middle school boy or the teacher of one (or more), you might want to try Captain Blood. I can’t say that it’s a great deal better than Harry Potter, nor that it’s a great deal worse, but it will prove that you’re able to wade through 300 pages of narrative writing. There are some long words, even some untranslated Latin words. If you are a middle school boy, you can have fun with that Latin. Sabatini knew enough Latin phrases to pick out several that your teacher probably won’t know. Look them up on the’Net, drop them into a class discussion, and gloat.
This is not a Fair Trade Book. In fact, the hardcover edition I had when I wrote this review, which I sold, was a collectors' item for which I should have charged much more than I did. However, paperback editions are still cheap and plentiful. If you want to buy a copy here, send $5 per paperback, or $30 per vintage hardcover, + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner.