The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle was published thirty years ago.
That’s hard for me to absorb. Or accept. And because it is once again being considered for film (will it happen or not is anybody’s guess, including mine) after many years, I read it again.
What struck me first was the nautical knowledge it contained, very little of which I have retained. It was hardly given knowledge but the result of a lot of research. At the time I was living in Providence, Rhode Island and was able to visit any number of New England maritime museums, including the one at Mystic Connecticut, another in Bath, Maine. At the Mystic Museum I recall sitting in the bowels of the whaling ship, Charles W. Morgan and tried to pull in a sense of being on a sailing ship. I also boarded a two-masted brig and sailed about Narraganset Bay.
I had to learn about the astonishing complexity of sailing ships. All those sails; each one having a purpose. I found a book which gave, in detail, the orders that rang out so sailors could adjust those sails for any given ship motion and/or function. I recall one such series of orders (never used) as to how to sail one of those big ships backward!
And the ropes! A spider web is simple in comparison.
But I think the essence of the book is Charlotte herself, her transformation from a naïve, inexperienced person, to one full of knowledge (including self-knowledge) strength and resolution. Key to that is her bonding with Zachariah, the old black cook. Curiously, in the early reviews that is not much mentioned. But, with him being the sole black, she being the sole girl on the ship, that allows them to form not just a friendship, but an alliance. It is an alliance that allows him to be the teacher, she the willing (needful!) student.
Countless readers (mostly girls) have told me how meaningful the book has been for them. One of my favorites: “Dear Avi, I have read your book sixteen times. It’s the only book I will read. My mother says I can’t read it anymore. Please write a sequel so I can read another book.”
And at conferences and the like, middle-aged women approach me and show me the tattered copy of the book and shyly say, “I’ve saved it all these years.”
One of my favorite comments about the book came from a critic who said of it: “Highly improbably but deeply satisfying.”
But wait! A couple of years after I wrote the book I came across an account of a young woman—(about the time the book takes place)—who, wanting to follow her lover (husband?) to America, donned men’s clothing, joined a ship as a member of the crew and sailed to Providence.
And I’m always curious: Why was it important to so many readers? Do tell.