Saturday, December 7, 2013

Book review: "The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum"

Joshua Slocum is probably best known as the first person to sail around the world alone, a three-year journey he completed in 1898. But Slocum had a lot of other remarkable experiences, as we learn in Geoffrey Wolff's biography, "The Hard Way Around."

Slocum was a sea captain who, through many commercial and recreational sailing trips, may have spent more time at sea in his life than he did on land. In this well-researched book, Wolff carefully documents Slocum's far-flung adventures and captures an era when travel by sea was vital, yet wild and unpredictable.

Still, Wolff has chosen a difficult subject. Slocum was a stoic and aloof man, who rarely exposed his inner feelings. Even when his twin infants died on a voyage, he fails to mention that fact in a written account. As a result, "The Hard Way Around" is an interesting book, but not an emotionally engaging one.

I particularly enjoyed the stories of how Slocum's family came with him his children were virtually raised at sea, learning the ropes of a sailing ship alongside foul-mouthed ship hands, many of whom may have been "shanghaied" on board.

Wolff sprinkles in colorful details, noting how Slocum painted false gun ports on his ships to discourage pirates, how ice at one time was a highly valued commodity shipped great distances, and how close Slocum came to the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

Still, as a reader, you're kept wondering what Slocum is thinking throughout his various perils and successes. Wolff, who cites the sea captain's "reflexive taciturnity," is forced to scrap for clues. When Slocum simply writes "the shore was dangerous" an allusion to his distaste for life on land Wolff describes it as "the most complex autobiographical account of the singular ambitions and limits of the author's personality."

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