The Hard Way Around> , by Geoffrey Wolff. Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 218 pages. Hardback, $25.95
A confession: I love sea stories, but until a few weeks ago, I had never read one of the great, true-life adventure books ever written — Sailing Alone Around the World, by Capt. Joshua Slocum, originally of Nova Scotia and at the end of his life from a farm he called Fag End in West Tisbury.
The reason for this was that though Slocum was said to be a storyteller of rare power, his prose miraculously evocative and precise (especially given that his education ended in the third grade), I was told that, throughout his own narrative, he remained an unchanging and essentially unknowable figure.
Recalling that in his lifetime he had lost two large sailing vessels to shipwreck, thwarted two mutinies, shot one of his own officers, and that after his circumnavigation he would be jailed briefly for an unspecified sexual offense against a 12-year-old girl, it seemed to me that no matter how much I might enjoy his story — of the first single-handed voyage around the world, aboard Spray, a derelict 37-foot sloop he rebuilt in Fairhaven — I’d never get more than half the story of the man who lived and wrote it.
Why read of a sailor’s odyssey if you are to learn little or nothing of the sailor at the heart of it? Why not wait for the book that could give you both?
Well, here that book is — at least in part — and for those of you who have put off Slocum for whatever reason, I urge you to read Geoffrey Wolff’s The Hard Way Around and then dig in to Sailing Alone right after it, as I did.
Mr. Wolff, a writer of novels and nonfiction from Bath, Me., can’t get much deeper into Captain Slocum’s character than the captain himself allows. But Mr. Wolff can set the stage for him, identifying and underscoring those driving, often conflicting motives that probably made Slocum think such a single-handed voyage would be a good idea to begin with and then actually set him off on it in April 1895, bringing him home again three years and two months later.
Joshua Slocum was born in 1844, the fourth of 11 children whose father worked a poor, rocky farm in Westport on an isthmus of Nova Scotia. According to Mr. Wolff, the father, John, was a tyrant who pulled Joshua from school at the age of 10, setting him to plowing fields, doing the foulest jobs at a pierside cobbler shop and then busting up the models Joshua made of sailing ships in his few free hours, perhaps because they struck the old man as ambitious, ungodly and a sign of just how badly Joshua wanted out.
There was nothing for it but to run away to sea, and this Joshua did for the first time at 13. By the time he turned 17, he had risen from the lowest rating in the crew to the rank of certified second mate. At the age of 25, he was the master of a bark, with which he freighted goods across the Pacific and back. Mr. Wolff explains in clear, muscular terms how many things Slocum had to learn, and how well he had to learn them, to rise as far and as fast as he did as a seaman, officer and captain.
In following Slocum around the planet on his commercial voyages before the trip around the world, Mr. Wolff does try hard give us something of the man who crossed oceans of travail as he crossed the oceans of the earth — but who, as a born writer, wrote next to nothing of how he felt or what he learned from them along the way. After Slocum married his first wife, Virginia, in Australia, the twins she bore at sea died on a voyage — but from the captain we don’t even learn what sex they were. On another, a teething daughter perishes suddenly, and at the end of the trip Slocum calls the voyage “a great success.”
It was a time, Mr. Wolff points out, when “such losses were unremarkable,” a period that “must be understood to be vastly different from our own.” Outlining the abuses and deprivations Joshua suffered as a boy — including the death of his beloved mother, Sarah Jane — Mr. Wolff acknowledges “the imperviousness” of Slocum’s “emotional bulkheads,” adding: “About his mother and Virginia” — the wife he loved passionately, and who also died at sea — “Slocum’s reticence seems pathological, but all efforts to put him on the couch are insolent and unavailing.”
By the time Joshua Slocum decided to set off in Spray, Mr. Wolff writes, he was 45 and had “lost to death three infant children and his first wife [and] to shipwreck two clippers, been charged with cruel imprisonment of one crew member and the murder of another. His second wife, Hettie, in sympathy with that seasick sailor of the Odyssey, wished to flee so far inland that local citizens wouldn’t recognize the purpose of an oar. He was broke. The age of sail had ended. The captain was, that is, entirely at sea.”
It is no fault of the author that the second half of The Hard Way Around can’t compare, in narrative force or enveloping detail, to Captain Slocum’s own account of his sail around the planet, which was recognized as a masterwork from the moment of its publication in 1900.
But I would finish Mr. Wolff’s tale before starting Captain Slocum’s, for Slocum is often unhelpfully modest about achievements that Mr. Wolff marvels over enlighteningly — his navigational skills, for one, and the ability of his vessel to hold her course for hundreds of miles on a tack while the captain slept and performed other tasks, for another. My experience of the Slocum book is that much richer for having read the Wolff one.
After his voyage around the world, Slocum bought a farm in West Tisbury, and in keeping with family tradition, farmed it poorly. The last time he was ever seen ashore was in Vineyard Haven in November 1908, when he and Spray, both in a dilapidated state, set off to explore the Orinoco River in Venezuela. Neither the vessel nor her captain was ever heard from again.
If this last part of The Hard Way Around feels slim and slightly rushed after all that has gone before, it reflects the way Slocum himself — his triumphs and losses all behind him now — was probably thinking and acting before that final voyage. The Vineyard at the end of his life, like Nova Scotia at the beginning, was the last place an old, tired and unrevealing man wanted to be, and so he left on one more adventure he no longer had the skill, or luck, to complete. You can’t say much more about it than that, and Mr. Wolff knows his man well enough to leave him out there, on his own.
Tom Dunlop is the author of Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha’s Vineyard (Vineyard Stories, 2010).