William H. White,
In Pursuit of Glory
(Tiller, 2006)

I don't believe Oliver Baldwin will ever be a great naval hero like the Aubreys and Hornblowers of nautical fiction.

That said, Baldwin's adventures as a young officer in the United States Navy, just a generation past the American Revolution, are both fascinating and fun to read.

While the Age of Sail has been featured in countless novels over the years, William H. White has touched on an era that is rarely featured: the very early 19th century. In The Greater the Honor, Baldwin -- a novice midshipman -- is blooded in the Barbary Wars off the coast of Tripoli and participates in the famous and daring raid on the captured frigate Philadelphia as well as the naval assault on Tripoli that followed. Now, several years older, wiser and more experienced, Lt. Baldwin is present for key events leading up to and including the War of 1812.

The most dire of these is already over when the novel begins, but the frightful tale of the British attack on the U.S. frigate Chesapeake in an attempt to find and press British deserters is related through testimony at the court martial of Commodore James Barron, who surrendered his ship with only a single shot fired in its defense. That event, in the summer of 1807, is one of the major causes of America's declaration of war in 1812, and it remained for some time a source of deep shame and embarrassment for a great many American sailors. Of course, Baldwin was there.

He also takes part in the refit of and cruises on the USS United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur, an actual war hero who first made his mark at Tripoli and led one of the most decisive naval victories against the British.

Baldwin, if somewhat lackluster and a little too credulous for his own good, is a steady and able officer who provides a clear perspective on these important events. It is refreshing to see the action through the eyes of someone who's not in command; most nautical authors tend to zero in on the captain as their protagonist. And, while White is occasionally a little repetitive and plodding in his narrative, he manages to maintain the reader's interest through the thrilling exploits of an often overlooked period of American history.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Tom Knapp

9 January 2010

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