Mark Warner,
The Tragedy of the Royal Tar
(Warner, 2010)

If anything, there's a little too much detail in the book.

The Tragedy of the Royal Tar tells a horrific tale, but the events themselves are fairly succinct. The steamboat Royal Tar on Oct. 25, 1836, caught fire in Penobscot Bay, off the coast of Maine. Besides 32 people killed in the fire, a traveling menagerie of exotic animals was lost in the terrible accident.

Mark Warner has researched the subject thoroughly, and he presents the story in this slim volume. But there's not a lot to say, really; the entire story of the fire and attempts at rescue span little more than 10 pages. So, to flesh out his work, Warner has included just about every piece of information, no matter how vaguely related to the matter at hand.

You'll learn about the Royal Tar's construction, as well as other boats built in the same yard. You'll read about her sea trials and previous journeys, as well as lighthouses along the route between New Brunswick and Maine. You'll learn how her boilers and pistons worked. Then, you'll follow the land route taken by the traveling menagerie -- Unit No. 10 from the Zoological Institute of Boston, a.k.a. the Macomber, Welch & Co. Menagerie -- and learn a good bit about the menagerie's place in society at the time, back before circuses usurped its place. You'll get to know Mogul, the troupe's 15-year-old elephant, and for good measure you'll learn about every other African and Asian elephant that had been brought to America to that date.

You see where I'm going with this. Warner's research is nothing if not exhaustive, but at times I found myself wishing he'd been a little less thorough and focused more on the point.

For completists, however, this book provides everything you might ever want to know about the fire on the Royal Tar. It's an interesting episode in history. The only question is, how much do you really want to know?

book review by
Tom Knapp

16 July 2011

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