A Pirate’s Life Not for Everyone: Review of The Dark Frigate

1924_frigateArrr! Who doesn’t love a good swashbuckling pirate tale? While piracy plays a large part in 1924 Newbery winner The Dark Frigate, absent is the humor (and possibly eyeliner) familiar in popular, modern pirate portrayals. There is, however, no shortage of adventure in this story of orphan Philip Marsham by Charles Boardman Hawes.

Finding himself in trouble and in need of escape, Philip follows in the footsteps of his sea-loving father by signing on with the “Rose of Devon.” More misfortune strikes when the ship is overtaken by pirates who give the sailors the choice of piracy or death. Forget walking the plank, the sailors who refuse a pirate’s life are brutally and bloodily executed by the sword. It’s no surprise the path Philip chooses; after all, what sense would there be to kill off the hero in the middle of the book? He makes it clear he is an unwilling participant though, and devotes his time to solving the problems of how to escape the pirates and avoid the penalty of piracy — hanging.

The pirates described by Hawes are a wicked, merciless bunch of villains who add deeper meaning to the darkness of the title ship. With the violent, sometimes gruesome aspects of the tale, The Dark Frigate may not be best placed in the hands of more sensitive, young readers. Furthermore, though it’s an overall entertaining read and fairly full of action, the dialect is sometimes tough to decipher. For instance, I still cannot figure out every word of this line spoken by Colin Samson, a blacksmith who crafts and gifts Philip a dirk early in the book: “‘Who the de’il gaed yonder on sic like e’en and at sic like hoddin’ gait?’” Other than this line, I was able to adjust to reading the book fine, but it did take me a couple chapters in to get comfortable. Even if the violence isn’t a deterrent, the dialogue may be what brings children (and perhaps other readers) to put this one back on the shelf.

Three gifted dirks out of five for The Dark Frigate.

This post is part of a series about my goal to read through the Newbery Medal books.


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