Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Victory - Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper's Victory is a mixture of historical and realistic fiction. Sam Robbins is an 11 year old farm boy in Kent whose uncle takes him to earn a living at the ropewalk in Chatham as the Royal Navy prepares for a renewed war against France. He and his uncle are press-ganged into becoming sailors, and Sam becomes a powder monkey aboard H. M. S. Victory, the ship on which Lord Nelson will die a hero's death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Molly Jennings is a present-day English girl whose mother and step-father have moved her from London to America, to start a new life after her step-father Carl is moved to his American homeland through work. Molly is fighting a battle of her own against homesickness and loneliness.

This extraordinary adventure tale tells the interwoven stories of Sam and Molly, who are linked by a mystery. At first Sam is terrified and seasick aboard Victory, but gradually he is transformed into a sailor. In the rowdy, dangerous world of a warship enduring the Napoleonic Wars, he faces cruelty and kindness, and survives a fearsome battle whose echoes reach through the years to involve Molly as well. On a trip to Mystic Seaport, Molly, who is a great reader, finds an old copy of Robert Southey's The Life of Nelson. When her step-brother Russell's friend is teasing her and faking a Cockney accent, Molly loses her cool and throws the book at Jack. This knocks loose the cover and she finds inside a handmade envelope with two notes and a tattered piece of material. The material turns out to be a piece of Victory's flag that had belonged to Sam Robbins. Sam had given it to his daughter before making his final sea voyage, from which he did not return. Sam's grandson Edward has hidden the piece of flag inside the book after his mother gave it to him. The flag links Sam and Molly together, although Molly doesn't learn exactly why until almost the end of the book. In the meantime they both struggle through fear and excitement to the Battle of Trafalgar, which terrifyingly tests the courage of them both.

There's a beautiful bit in this book, which reminded me strongly of Cooper's other recent historical tale, King of Shadows. Molly is in the bookshop at Mystic Seaport where the family has taken refuge from a sudden heavy rain shower. She goes to speak to the shop owner, who is bent over paperwork

He looks up from his papers, startled, and for a moment does not see her. She has the feeling that inside his head he was a long, long way away, and is having trouble coming back. Being a reader, Molly knows such feelings well [...]. (pp. 22-23)

This is an amazing tale - I love the way Cooper uses the piece of the flag that Molly finds. She doesn't travel through time with it, she just catches echoes, some of them terrifyingly strong, of Sam's experiences, which then touch her own life in powerful ways. The ending of the tale is emotionally powerful, yet deeply satisfying too. A book I can recommend.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the review. I'm glad that you liked this one, too. I also found it to be a moving story.

Michele said...

You're welcome. I've just re-read King of Shadows, prompted by my own reference to it (and the fact I got my own copy of it this week) - and the two stories are superficially similar, but deep down, quite different. I wanted to see whether I thought Cooper had essentially written the same book (King of Shadows) again as Victory, and I'm pleased to see she hasn't !

Anonymous said...

Glad you liked this - I thought it was very well done. It reminded me also somewhat of A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond, which if you haven't read I highly recommend.

Michele said...

I haven't Debbie, but I will look for it at the library - and maybe read it once my stint on the Cybils Nominating Committee is out of the way as between that and the books for review I'm getting, it's getting hard to squeeze in books I want to read (rather than books I've been asked to read !)