Genre: Children’s/young adult fiction, historical
Publisher, Year: Avon Books, 1990
Other Works: The Fighting Ground, The Barn, also too many to list (70+)
Flags: Teen angst
Rating: A+, or Must Read Now!
Challenge: Library, Outdo Yourself, Historical Fiction
Premise: A young girl, Charlotte, sets sail to cross the Atlantic and join her family in America. Though the journey was planned as a convenient and speedy voyage, once on board, Charlotte realizes that nothing is as it should be.
Everything about this book is perfect. I am now left wondering why it took me so long to pick this book up. I remember hearing about it in elementary school when it first came out, and I seem to remember friends of mine reading this book as part of the curriculum, but for some reason, I never was required to. And since at that time, I was mainly focused on stories that involved “meet cutes” and simple romances that made my little tween heart go pitter-pat, what sounded to me like a pirate story just wasn’t appealing. Actually, I have memories of avoiding it. How I wish someone would have sat me down and force-fed me this book! I literally devoured it in one day.
Charlotte Doyle’s family moved from America to England when she was a little girl. Now that she’s thirteen, they are ready to make the trek back. However, the timing is not quite right, so to avoid Charlotte missing any of her schooling and carefully planning her arrangements--including chaperones--she is to meet her family at a later date. When she arrives at the dock, nothing is as it was promised. Yet, a young girl and used to being told what to do, Charlotte can hardly object when she is given no alternative but to sail anyway. Though she receives several warnings and herself feels the foreboding of impending doom, she cannot act, and therefore, seals her own fate. Mixed up in a game of cat and mouse between captain and crew, Charlotte finds herself smack in the middle of a war zone, faced with dilemmas that shake her to the core--her values, her trust, and her belief in herself. And the decisions she makes change everything.
What makes this book so perfect? In my opinion, the plot is beautifully paced. A perfect crescendo emerges as we meet the players and the tension builds. The foreshadow of dark catastrophe hovers like a mythical giant, face obscured. We don’t know what form exactly the tragedy will take, but it’s coming, of that we are certain. It not only makes the novel a page-turner, it provides the perfect environment in which Charlotte thrashes about, trying to understand her new atmosphere--the rules of this universe that is so different from her regimented girl’s school. And this produces the perfectly dynamic main character in Charlotte. She mirrors the pacing of the plot in that inside her, this same storm is raging, tension building, until she cannot sit idly by any longer.
Charlotte’s world is irreversibly turned upside down. She begins to question everything she’s ever known, she’s ever been taught. She is a product of the structured Victorian ideal, and she believes in it wholeheartedly as any impressionable girl of her age would. Her father is her master--and in his absence, the captain occupies his role as authority figure--and in her mind, a fair one, who judges the world in an absolutely flawless manner. Until suddenly, that authority starts to spiral into a crazed tailspin, leaving Charlotte dizzy and confused. And that’s when her childlike trust begins to crumble, when she must think for herself and develop a new ideal. And she takes to evaluating the world on her own terms like a fish to water.
Avi perfectly illustrates that terrible struggle when we are pushed from childhood by the realization that we are all fallible, adults alike. As children, we trust our elders implicitly, as Charlotte did. But there comes a time when the curtain is pulled back and the “wizard” is revealed as just a normal guy, pushing buttons to create an illusion of grandeur: we realize that our parents are just people, and those who we trust and love the most may not always be right. And Charlotte wisely begins to question every convention that she’s simply taken as fact for as long as she can remember. Some find that part of the story unbelievable, but I don’t agree. I’ve seen children who are thrown from childhood and grow up very quickly when faced with horrific realities of life. And that is exactly what happens in this story.
I also enjoyed being thrust into this new world at sea, as Charlotte discovers it.
Avi does such an amazing (shall I say perfect?) job of describing this world with such incredible detail. I could see the ship pitching and rolling, feel the salty, wet wind on my face, experience the incredible isolation of life at sea. When I closed my eyes, I could truly imagine being aboard the Seahawk and feel the swell of the ocean.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a magical journey from beginning to end, replete with a cast of colorful characters, difficult decisions, and a strong, persistent female lead. Mix all these ingredients in the hands of a seasoned writer like Avi, and you can’t expect anything less than perfection, which is exactly what he gives you. This one will be given a revered spot on my shelf.