Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Reading Through History: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi (1990)

In the summer of 1832, Charlotte Doyle is 13 years old. She has just left her boarding school for the summer, and is due to join some other families on a ship crossing from England to Rhode Island. When she arrives at the Seahawk, however, the others have all changed their plans, and she finds herself sailing unchaperoned, alone on a ship full of men. Charlotte is warned that undertaking this voyage unaccompanied is a bad idea, but she and her escort agree that she should not go against the plans her father has made and she embarks on the journey anyway. At first, she becomes friendly with the captain, assuming based on his appearance that he is someone she can trust, who shares her values. When it becomes clear that perhaps she has been too quick to rely on the captain, however, her presence on the ship feels more perilous. As the story progresses, Charlotte's naivete about the world is lost, and she begins taking actions that would ordinarily seem unladylike to her in order to survive.

I appreciated the suspenseful writing in this book. I could easily imagine each scene as it was happening, and despite only knowing a little bit of sailing jargon (thank you, Swallows and Amazons!) I had no trouble at all keeping track of the action. I felt less sure about the characters. I was sympathetic to Charlotte out of concern for her safety, but I can't say that I got close enough to her to feel what she was feeling. I did like the way Avi withheld and revealed certain details at certain times in order to make us feel dubious about some of the less forthcoming characters, but I still felt very much like I was watching the action at a distance.

My biggest issue of all with the book, though, is the taste of "anachronistic feminism" that it left in my mouth. I am already biased against "girl power" books because they tend to feel condescending and artificial, and this one seemed to apply contemporary feminist values to a time and place where they simply do not fit. Charlotte's reaction to her experience at the end of the book is completely far-fetched, and not at all true to her circumstances. It also sends a message that the best way to reach fulfillment as a woman is to behave more like a man. I own this book because it was a Newbery honor book in 1991, and because I remember all my classmates reading it when I was in middle school and refusing to read it myself. I'm on the fence right now about when (or whether) I will suggest it to my girls.

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