Steven E. Maffeo,
The Perfect Wreck
(Fireship, 2011)

The Perfect Wreck tells the tale of the thrilling naval battle in December 1812 between USS Constitution -- newly dubbed "Old Ironsides" by her crew -- and HMS Java.

It's a major sea battle from the annals of a little-regarded war in American and British history, and the Constitution -- the pride of the fledgling American fleet -- pounded Java into submission for the decisive result.

The research that went into this book is exhaustive, and author Steven E. Maffeo should be commended for the labors that went into bringing these two ships and their crews to life.

The book is presented as "creative nonfiction," which means it reads more like a novel than a history text. While Maffeo must have made some guesses as to the personalities of the ships' commanders and crew -- and so, in many cases, they come across as relatively two-dimensional and hard to tell apart -- he uses no one who wasn't actually there, and if he tells you someone was flogged for disobedience or killed in action, then you can rest assured that they actually were.

The story starts for both ships in their respective ports, and Maffeo details the preparations needed before putting to sea -- from ship's stores to rigging and, of course, the sometimes difficult task of assembling a crew. In that regard, the Constitution came off much better; her crew was tried and tested, while Java put to sea with a majority of novice seamen.

Truth be told, Maffeo probably goes a little overboard with the detail here, feeling the need to tell readers every time a boat came alongside with a barrel of water for the upcoming journey. It gets a bit tedious.

The other source of tedium here is Maffeo's desire to instruct readers on a great deal of history -- about the ships, their captains, the geographical locations they visit -- but apparently decided it would read too much like a textbook if he just told us what he wanted us to know. So he puts his characters in the position of explaining to each other every fact and piece of trivia Maffeo can pack between the covers, and it feels forced and awkward every time.

Once he gets to the battle itself, however, Maffeo tells a riveting tale. It's a shame, really, that it takes up so little of the book -- some 40 pages, a little more than a tenth of the text.

The Perfect Wreck is a valuable addition to the library of nautical fiction, especially given that so little has been written about the naval exploits from the War of 1812. I would have liked a stronger execution, but amid the flotsam, Maffeo has provided readers with a strong narrative about an important event in maritime history.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Tom Knapp

13 April 2013

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