Broos Campbell,
Matty Graves: No Quarter
(McBooks, 2006)

Serving under the command of a genial cousin could mean great things in store for 17-year-old Matty Graves.

But Captain Billy Trimble of the U.S. schooner Rattle-Snake is at best a good-natured drunk. At worst, he's an incompetent commander and coward. And, while being his cousin helps young Matty into a position as master's mate, it also could lead to death or dishonor on the high seas.

It's 1800, and President George Washington has just been laid to rest. America's political future is uncertain, and America's navy is still in its infancy, plagued at sea by British frigates who press unwilling American crews and by French ships fighting an undeclared war in the Caribbean. And, while the Rattle-Snake's escort mission to San Domingo (now Haiti) might seem simple enough, there are pirates, privateers and picaroons a-plenty in their way.

Broos Campbell is a relatively new voice in the rich tradition of naval fiction, and he is a welcome addition to the ranks. While many top novelists have followed in the wake of Forester and O'Brian in detailing the valor of the mighty British fleet, Campbell instead takes on the fledgling American navy at a time when it was small, weak and poorly regarded.

In Matty Graves, Campbell has found a unique voice; he lacks experience but not nerve, comes from humble beginnings and his loyalties are torn. His perspective on sea battles and shipboard politics is fresh and exciting, and Campbell's detailed description of an attack by French picaroons -- closely inspired, no doubt, by a real encounter on Jan. 1, 1800, involving the USS Experiment, her cowardly captain and steadfast lieutenant, four merchant vessels and several armed barges filled with bloodthirsty attackers -- is a frantic, magnificent read.

Campbell breathes life into an obscure chapter of American history, and I look forward to reading the further adventures of Matty Graves.

review by
Tom Knapp

31 October 2009

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