George Otto Simms,
Brendan the Navigator
(O'Brien, 1989/1997)

There's no doubt that St. Brendan, a 5th-century Irish monk, existed and that he and his companions made a great sea voyage at a time when ocean exploration was still a limited science. Many believe that Brendan's colorful writings about his journey actually describe a voyage to the New World -- putting him there a good 500 years before the first Vikings to reach North American shores and nearly 1,000 years before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and made his own accidental discovery. (In fact, while preparing for his own excursion, Columbus traveled to the west coast of Ireland to study Brendan's diary of his trip.)

Unfortunately, George Otto Simms didn't delve very deeply into the facts and fancies of Brendan's voyage in his book Brendan the Navigator. The book is targeted towards "both child and adult," but Simms must think his adult readers to be fairly superficial in their curiosity about the Irish saint and seaman. He sticks to the legend, relating brief anecdotes about the monsters, friendly whales, condemned souls and other creatures and places of interest without ever looking very hard at the reality beneath the myth.

Too, the author must believe there isn't much to say about Brendan, since a good-sized chunk of the large-print, 86-page book deals not with Brendan, but with other Scottish and Irish saints and general facts about Irish monks and monasteries. And, indeed, while Simms credits Brendan with discovering new places, all as described here seem to already have inhabitants -- usually Irish monks who somehow got there ahead of Brendan and founded settlements of their own. Simms certainly doesn't suggest that the Irish might have reached the New World centuries before the earliest recorded Europeans.

Brendan the Navigator may whet the appetite of a child to learn more about this amazing historical figure, but it certainly won't do much for anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history or legends about the man. The text is also at times a bit preachy, although that can be expected in a book about a saint. Simms' narrative is amiable and pleasantly informal, but I can't help but wish he'd done a little more research into his subject before publishing a book about Brendan.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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