Howard Pyle,
The Book of Pirates
(Harper & Bros., 1921; Dover, 2000; Dodo, 2008)

From the first sentence of Howard Pyle's preface to his collected works on piracy, you know you're in for a treat with a writer who spares no adjective, wastes no metaphor in his pursuit of thrilling text.

Why is it that a little spice of deviltry lends not an unpleasantly titillating twang to the great mass of respectable flour that goes to make up the pudding of our modern civilization?

Just so! Even in the first chapter, a factual recounting of the Golden Age of Piracy on the Spanish Main, Pyle inserts his trademark style. For instance, in this tale of the buccaneer Francois l'Olonoise, Pyle writes:

Cold, unimpassioned, pitiless, his sluggish blood was never moved by one single pulse of human warmth, his icy heart was never touched by one ray of mercy or one spark of pity for the hapless wretches who chanced to fall into his bloody hands.

Now that's purple prose at its best!

The Book of Pirates is a mix of fact and fiction, beginning with a brief overview of pirate history in "Buccaneers and Marooners of the Spanish Main." This brief chapter is by no means an exhaustive source on the subject, but it at least gives readers a general idea and flavor for the age.

The remaining chapters are short stories and excerpts, but even Pyle's fiction is seasoned with fact. Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd and Blackbeard are among the historical figures who appear in these tales. In fact, the story "Jack Ballister's Fortunes" is entirely about the fateful clash between Blackbeard and Lt. Maynard; the eponymous Jack Ballister never appears. (This short story is actually an excerpt from a larger book in which Ballister is, of course, the hero of the tale.) And, even if you guess the "surprise" endings to "Blueskin the Pirate" and "Captain Scarfield," it's still fun getting there.

Pyle is, without question, a renowned author and illustrator of tales for young readers. While historical accuracy wasn't always his focus, his retelling of traditional stories and his invention of new ones certainly made for dandy reading for adventure-hungry youth in his day. His writing might seem a trifle stilted to a modern audience, but his stories are every bit as entertaining as they were a century ago.

review by
Tom Knapp

29 November 2008

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