Imagine a time when Great Britain was enemy to the United States, when “western states” referred to Indiana and Ohio, when the new-found fragile union of states ever threatened to devolve into a rabble of squabbling territories…oh. Wait. That last’s a recurring theme in U.S. history.
That’s when this book is set: a span of thirty years covering the first years after the American Revolution to the conclusion of the War of 1812 with the Hartford Convention in 1814-15. The principal characters are members of the Noyes family, with John Noyes, sailor and later captain, privateer and China trader, at the center of the book’s plot and activities. The book deals with the aftermath of the U.S. Revolution on through the Napoleonic Era to the War of 1812, and how the United States struggled to establish itself as a nation in its own right, separate from Great Britain, and develop its own economic, legal and political individuality.
The book alternates between John’s experiences at sea trading abroad, largely in the Pacific, with the land-based experiences of Julia, John’s wife, and Caroline, his mother at home in New England. John and Julia are not entirely happy with each other; the years of separation necessitated by even a straightforward trip by sail across the Atlantic strained even the most loving and sound of relationships. The need to travel ’round the Cape of Good hope to India for cotton1 or Cape Horn to the Orient lent not only danger but time to the merchant sailors’ voyages, and worsened the strain on the wives at home. Caroline has proved herself a capable business manager after her husband’s death, and Julia a better one; this alleviates the boredom resulting from idleness, but present a difficulty when John returns home and their son Henry grows to manhood, assuming he will take on a greater role in the family business than the older members are prepared to allow him.
It’s easy for modern readers to forget that in the first years of this country’s existence, we were not only enemies with Great Britain but the country’s very continued existence was tenuous at best. The modern nation, extending from sea to sea and beyond into the Pacific, was hardly to be imagined! This was only a possibility even when the book was published; though at the time, Alaska and Hawaii were territories of the U.S., they had not yet been confirmed.
Published in 1944, this book’s interesting not least for a glimpse into how writing styles have changed in the intervening decades; the dialogue and description here seem not so much stiff as slightly archaic, and very definitely purple compared to modern standards. It’s fun to read a book that tends to the seafaring while including strong female characters determined to at least maintain their own finances. There is, however, a certain jingoistic feel about this book. Perhaps not surprising given when it was published! Keep in mind, if reading this book, that the War of 1812 was closer to readers at the time of the book’s publication than the U.S. Civil War is to us by about twenty years, and Mudgett is assuming a fair knowledge of American history, political structure and international relations.
1Eli Whitney had only just invented his version of the cotton gin, remember?