THE TRUE CONFESSION OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE. Avi. Orchard Books, 1990. 215 pages, $14.95. A 1991 Newbery Award Honor Book.
Thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle is returning to America to join her family and discovers too late her error in boarding the "Seahawk"; there are no other families or females as passengers as she had been promised. The only people on the long voyage of the Seahawk is a mutinous group controlled by villainous, Captain Andrew Jag-gery.The ship is hardly out to sea when Charlotte is given a dagger by the old black cook, Zachariah. It is this weapon that is meant to help protect her but indeed implicates her in a murder of one of the crew.
At first Charlotte trusts Captain Jaggery and has tea in his cabin. She relates the negative comments of the crew but learns that she has lost their confidence and is considered a female traitor.
"The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle" is as swashbuckling as an old Erroll Flynn movie with fights, storms and Charlotte anxiously learning to climb the ropes to the main mast.
In 215 pages, Avi turns the 19th century Charlotte from a properly schooled young lady in a hoop skirt to a swarthy crew-hand that bristles under the treachery of a captain meaning to kill her.
The churning ship and its world-in-the-water is a strong setting. The sketches of the ship with an explanation of "ship time" at the back of the book, place the months on the Atlantic clearly in the reader's mind. There is never a doubt to the hardships of a tortured crew, the lack of privacy and the filth.
But it is Avi's characterizations that take this book to an outstanding level. Charlotte's fragility and vulnerability is felt throughout as her delicate skin is baked under the sun and her palms harden with calluses. The author has given detail and individuality to each of the crew: Barlow, Ewing, Foley, Grimes and particularly Zachariah, the kindly cook who hides out in the hold so that the captain will think he is dead.
These characters are a strong contrast to Charlotte's waiting family as the ship reaches Providence: My mother was in a full skirt . . . my father, the very image of a man of property was frock-coated . . . and my brother and sister were but little miniatures of them.
The events snap the adventure with tension after tension like the ragged sail that jerks the ship forward, then lets it lie in the glass-smooth water until the next blast of wind.
Charlotte's journal, her confessions, is the pivotal piece of evidence that Mr. Doyle reads. He chastises her: Somehow your teachers there filled your mind with the unfortunate capacity to invent the most outlandish, not to say unnatural tales . . . What you have written is rubbish of the worse taste . . . More to the point, Charlotte, your spelling is an absolute disgrace . . . and the grammar is beyond belief!
(Charlotte) glanced toward the fireplace . . . and realized that my journal was being consumed by flames.
For a time in Providence, Charlotte concentrates on her life in America and plays the role of a proper young lady, but the call of the sea wins out and as Zachariah taught her, A sailor chooses the wind that takes the ship from safe port . . . but winds have a mind of their own.