Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review: "Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain", by Aya Katz


I promised to give a fair critique of this second book in the series, even though the author is a friend, so I'll start with technicalities.  First, the cover painting is disappointing;  Impressionism and Fauvism are all very well, but they do require that the artist draw well -- and I've seen talented 10-year-olds do better.  On the other hand, the book being a Trade-sized paperback like its predecessors, the Perfect (hot-glue) binding is both sturdy and flexible enough to last indefinitely. The printing, even the Antiqued chapter-heading fonts, is good-sized, very crisp and clear -- wonderfully easy on the eyes.

The story itself is a continuation of the fictionalized biography of Aaron Burr's daughter, and her theorized lifelong romance with Jean Lafitte the Privateer -- not pirate, as he insists.  This volume takes us through Lafitte's founding of Galveston, and the embarrassment this caused the fledgling American government.  Besides having to play a delicate balancing act between the empires of Britain, France, and Spain -- not to mention the new South and Central American republics that sprang up in the footsteps of Simon Bolivar-- the United States government still hadn't worked all the bugs out of the democratic-governing business. Despite the ideals of the founders, the people staffing the new government were still affected by the feudal and corrupt assumptions of the earlier British government, complete with its class arrogance.  They were acutely embarrassed by having had to rely on independent privateers for their early navy, and tried to blot out that shame by turning on their former allies -- including Lafitte -- as soon as they could build enough ships to do it.  The novel is an account of Lafitte's slow retreat, under pressure from the US government, from the city he saved, the settlements he founded, and the countries he helped liberate, until he's obliged to fake his death and forsake the sea altogether, to settle down as a respectable gunpowder-merchant in a suburb of St. Louis.

Of course there are plenty of lively and romantic details: Lafitte's daughter and her disastrous first marriage, the vengeance Lafitte takes on her brutal husband, the routing of the nasty Inquisitor by Theodosia and her children and neighbors, and the cunning escapes by the Lafitte brothers from the embarrassed governments that keep trying to hang them.  There are also surprising viewpoints and pithy comments on the politics of the early republic, and foreshadowings of their future course.  For instance, Lafitte's veneration of property rights offers an alternative to the slavery problem that could have avoided the Civil War -- if only the federal government and the Abolitionist movement had chosen to take it.  Revelations of Alexander Hamilton's shady character and practices, and the financial disaster of his national bank, prophesy the economic woes of the present day.  The barely-excused thievery of tax and customs officials foretells two centuries of scandals and petty -- or not so petty -- injustices.  And through all this Theodosia struggles to keep her family alive, keep her husband's love, and keep her philosophical integrity.

Despite all this intricacy and intrigue, "Theodosia and the Pirates" is a smooth, fast read.  The inclusions of actual letters and announcements from the period don't slow the action but illuminate it, and the brief but colorful physical descriptions likewise move the action along.  I particularly liked the historical question-and-answer session at the end of the book, just ahead of the respectable bibliography.

Altogether, "Theodosia and the Pirates" -- both volumes -- illustrate a little-known but fascinating and formative period in American history while telling a lively and original love story.  Look for it on Amazon soon.

--Leslie <;)))><              

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