James L. Nelson,
The Only Life That Mattered
(McBooks, 2004)

This review was previously published in a somewhat different form on Aug. 12, 2006. That review was for The Sweet Trade by Elizabeth Garrett. However, it turns out that Elizabeth Garrett is James L. Nelson, and Nelson is Garrett. It is not without irony I reveal that this novel about women in men's clothing was first published by a man disguised as a woman!

One of the more romanticized villains in history is the noble pirate, the seafaring reaver with a gleam in his eye and a heart of gold. Nowhere is this more evident than in tales of the sea queens, the rare but all too real women in pirate's clothing. The most famous of these are Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who sailed with Calico Jack Rackam (or Rackham) in the Caribbean in the early 1700s.

Their lives are certainly worthy of note, if for no other reason than the coincidence that brought two women, both disguised as men, separately onto the same pirate sloop. Their backgrounds could not have been more different. Anne was the spoiled daughter of a wealthy Irish-American colonist; she married a ne'er-do-well sailor to escape her father's grasp, fled to Nassau, took up with a pirate and went to sea for the sheer adventure of it. Mary was an Englishwoman, raised as a boy by her widowed mother, who found no recourse in life but to serve as a soldier and sailor; when a brief, happy marriage ended with her husband's death, she went back to sea as a merchant sailor, was set upon by pirates and was offered a berth on their ship.

The fact that Mary (disguised as Michael) came aboard the Pretty Anne, where Anne (disguised as Adam) already served on the crew was an extraordinary happenstance. And that's the heart of The Only Life That Mattered, a historical novel by James L. Nelson.

Based on what historical records exist detailing their lives, Nelson weaves a credible tale of their adventures. The story is exciting and necessarily quick-paced -- their days of piracy together lasted less than three years -- but it's leisurely enough to sit back and enjoy the progression of events. You'll get to know the three main characters quite well, both their strengths and failings, and you'll get a good feel for life at sea at the dawn of the 18th century. You'll certainly learn enough to realize that life at sea wasn't easy, and pirates certainly weren't romantic or noble.

Anne and Mary, by all accounts strong, attractive and independent women for their day, probably aren't the sort you want to take home to meet your mother. And ladies, Jack isn't the guy you want to introduce to your dad.

Nelson has a fine voice for narration, and a keen sense of story. This one unfolds with a few surprises along the way, and leaves you with a conviction that the author knew his subjects in and out before starting to write. He might show occasional aspirations to be a romance writer here and there -- he did first publish this book using the pen name Elizabeth Garrett, after all -- but those out-of-place scenes are thankfully few and far between. Similarly, the main characters are all a bit too good looking, and the sex is always just a bit too good; I suspect in real life these people stank most of the time and had little time to learn the gentler arts of wooing.

Still, I picked up this book because it's about pirates, and because it features two piratesses who've intrigued me for years. While there are some weaknesses here, I read it eagerly and walked away pleased, quite sated by the experience. Nelson hasn't let me down yet.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Tom Knapp

14 June 2008

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