W. Clark Russell,
The Yarn of Old Harbour Town
(T. Fisher Unwin, 1905; McBooks, 2000)

What kind of man is Walter Lawrence?

He is a ne'er-do-well, given to too much drink and gambling. He is a fine, upstanding captain, bold and true. He is a besotted, lovelorn fool. He is a thief and a schemer, a vile kidnapper and a cruel, potentially murderous captain. He is soft-hearted and sympathetic. He is torn by regret, driven to the brink of self-annihilation. He is a pitiful invalid. He is an eager sailor. He is a happy, happy man.


W. Clark Russell, in his novel The Yarn of Old Harbour Town, first published in 1905, can't seem to decide what sort of man Lawrence is. It is therefore a little confusing to the reader to watch him go through his paces -- he is, to say the very least, unpredictable.

The novel is florid in its detail, going to great lengths to provide colorful descriptions in a way that proves a little tiresome at times.

And Lucy Acton, our heroine and the object of Lawrence's affections, is a trifle too mercurial in her own infatuation. The direction this so-called romance takes is a little hard to swallow in the 21st century.

And yet, the book has charm. It's a darling of a tale, and you'll find yourself rooting for Lucy -- and, at times, Walter -- to rise above the situations they find themselves in.

The book's focus is largely on Captain Charles Acton, Lucy's father, and retired Rear Admiral William Lawrence, sire of Walter, both of whom live in Old Harbour Town and are old, dear friends. Acton performs a favor, the younger Lawrence rises to the occasion and then, inscrutably, betrays everyone around him. There's a kidnapping, a chase across the ocean and even a cameo by Lord Nelson himself.

I'm not satisfied with the way this book ended, and yes, Russell's verbose prose is a little hard to slog through at times. All in all, however, I enjoyed this yarn, eagerly reading to find out what would happen next.

book review by
Tom Knapp

30 August 2014

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