Sunday, May 15, 2011

Champion of the Main by WE Johns

This was not a long book, or a difficult one. I read it in the course of one Sunday morning, before and after church!

I can, however, wholly recommend it.

Champion of the Main opens in Port Royal, Jamaica, with our hero, fifteen-year-old Mark Lawson, learning that his father Colonel Lawson has vanished at sea, having fallen victim to the notorious pirate "Butcher" Rochelle. And Mark immediately knows why: when he and his father had built a home in Jamaica, they had sent for Mrs Lawson, and the ship she sailed on had been sunk with all hands by that same Rochelle. Since then, Colonel Lawson has invested in ships and cannonry and ever in his trading looked for a chance to bring Rochelle to justice.

Captain Champion, a captain aboard one of the Colonel's ships, brings news to Mark of his father's fate. Angry, Mark goes to beard the governor of Port Royal, for it's no secret that the officials of Port Royal ignore Rochelle and are paid handsomely for it. Mark's impetuosity and an unlucky pass of Champion's sword result in their flight from Jamaica as wanted men. With British ports closed against them and the seas crawling with unfriendly Spaniards, the only course left is to turn buccaneer and look for Rochelle on their own account.

Champion of the Main is a great boys' adventure story and one of the most enjoyable pirate yarns I've ever read. I was glued to the page from the first chapter and the plot is full of twists, turns, and gore. I was actually surprised by how good this was.

I really liked the character of Mark. Captain Champion, who acts as his mentor throughout his desperate and determined search for his father, is the cool-headed older man who makes the cunning plans, rescues himself and Mark from a dozen life-or-death situations, and blenches at no peril; but Mark, because fallible, was a better character. Under his father's tuition, he has become a fearsome swordsman, which stands him in good stead many times during the novel; and apart from youthful hot-headedness, he is as determined and capable as a GA Henty hero. A little thing like the jungles of Panama, four hundred bloodthirsty pirates, and a small army of Spaniards is never going to stand between him and news of his father, pshaw!

Fathers and sons is a major theme of this book. The plot is driven by filial impulses; even Rochelle and the Spanish commander have sons, and fathers and sons stand to fight and live or die together. It's interesting because I think Johns very deliberately ensured that he had no female characters in the story, and intended at all costs to avoid anything that might whiff of romance--a rule he rarely broke in all his children's books, though when he did break it he tended to become grandly sentimental. In the absence of the traditional storybook romance, what human ties are there to motivate the plot and characters? Johns decided on filial relationships, and filled his book with them.

Despite this, it's interesting that Mark's father plays a very small part in the plot and the book is more about Mark's relationship with Captain Champion. Nevertheless, the two of them make a very engaging pair to read about.

Champion of the Main
is probably as rare as hen's teeth these days, and a collectable. But it's a great yarn, and if you have sons, a great investment.

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