Monday, August 15, 2011

Kingston by Starlight (Historical Fiction)

Author: Christopher John Farley
Publication Date: 2005
Cost: You can find new copies on Amazon for as low as $2.00 and a Kindle edition is available for $9.99.
Where Did I Hear About It: A "friend" on Facebook mentioned that she was looking forward to reading it this summer, so I borrowed a copy from BooksFree, the online library.

The Backstory

The subject of this novel, told from a first-person perspective, is Anne Bonny, a woman in the 18th century who turned, on and off, to a life of piracy, if the few accounts about her life are to be entirely believed. Bonny was an Irish woman supposedly born sometime between the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. Anne was reputed to be a beautiful woman with a rather intemperate spirit, and she married a rather poor sailor while she was quite young. One of the few details of her life that is known is that she moved to Nassau in the Bahamas before 1720 with her husband. Later, she became intimately involved with pirate Calico Jack Rackham, and she had a child by him in Cuba whose fate is unknown. Apparently, her husband didn't take lightly to this relationship, and he brought Anne before the Royal Governor of the Bahamas demanding that she be punished for her infidelity. Although she was sentenced to be flogged, she managed to escape with Rackham and another female pirate of equally unknown origin, Mary Read.

Mary Read, if true, had a remarkable life as a professional sailor. Read started out on a merchant vessel, but she actually managed to join the British military, and she may actually have seen some action. She supposedly married and even lived off of a military commission, but her husband predeceased her and she returned to the sea. Read fell into a life of piracy when a ship she worked on in the West Indies was attacked by pirates and she was given the option to join them or to be killed. She joined Rackham and Bonny around 1720.

In October 1720, Rackham's crew was taken by surprise, arrested, and brought to trial in Jamaica. Read and Bonny both escaped execution by revealing they were pregnant while in prison. Read died in prison, and there is some indication that childbirth may have been the cause. At the same time, Anne Bonny disappears from the record--there is no indication she was released from prison, and there is no indication she was executed. There are many theories surrounding the fate of Anne Bonny--some think her well-connected father may have had something to do with her disappearance, and some indicate that she lived a long life in South Carolina. None of these theories can be entirely proven.

What About the Book?

Note: A few details of the story are revealed in the following critique. I promise that none of them have a particularly strong bearing on the main plot of the novel, but, if you want to read this for yourself and don't want to spoil a single thing, be forewarned.

This novel was an enjoyable, but completely unchallenging to the reader. The story was a little too tight and convenient, and none of the characters were particularly well developed. However, the story is interesting, and I think this is a pretty quick read overall.

Anne Bonny's story does wrap up a few details of her life into the novel, but there are others that are entirely left out. Other details are a little difficult to believe. For example, Anne's father leaves the family and moves to South Carolina, and eventually Anne and her mother follow him there. Unfortunately, it turns out that the are stuck on a ship contracted to transfer slaves, and the crew, in a drunken rampage, actually kills her mother. None of this makes sense. Under no circumstances would two women unaccompanied by any male chaperones have boarded a ship like this in the 18th century. This odd trend continues when Anne, disowned by her father after meeting him in South Carolina, manages to steal a bunch of silver and pay for her own passage to the West Indies with it. In this case, it would have served the author, and the plot, much better if the factual details of her life guided her to the Indies. The inclusion of her husband would have really added another dimension to the story that it is seriously lacking.

Mary Read's character is endlessly baffling. The crew meet her under completely unrealistic circumstances that are never fully explained. There comes a point when Mary Read reveals that she is a woman, and it doesn't seem to make a difference at all. One feels that it isn't probable that she is even female because this has no bearing on how she is treated, and there isn't even any surprise.

Consistency continues to be a problem in many different ways in the novel. The author goes into great detail about Anne and her love of the sea and adventure and living the life of a man, but, at one point, the reader finds her living on an island with Rackham on what must have been a plantation of some kind. This is completely inconsistent with the character that the author developed for the reader, and it creates a completely unnecessary pause in what would have been a much more interesting story without it. This is one instance, of many, where history--even embellished history--was far more interesting than what the author was able to imagine.

Overall, though, the story is interesting and the reader is encouraged to continue. Anne life is a fascinating one, even with details left out or modified. Probably the best part is the section focusing on her life at sea, which comprises the majority of the novel. The story benefits from the fact that at any time, anything can happen, and that is a great advantage. It is the details that set this scenario up and provide a conclusion that are less captivating.

Rating: A 5, but a strong 5. I enjoyed reading it and went through it quickly. Although I was a bit disappointed in a few aspects of it, it is a fun story, and if you're looking for something enjoyable but not too serious or shocking, this may be the book for you.
Buy It or Borrow It: I'd say borrow it, but with such a small price tag on Amazon, you couldn't really go wrong. A few days overdue, and you'd pay the $2.00 to the library anyway.


An illustration from the Dutch version of Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates published in 1725. This is not thought to be a genuine likeness of either of the women portrayed.

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