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Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor…
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Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

by Paul Dowswell

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I'm sure it's fine and all, but apparently I need something more in my royal navy books to keep me interested. A more interesting main character, people outsmarting people, humor, slash, crossdressing girls, something.
  Jellyn | Aug 14, 2013 |
Young Sam Witchall convinces his schoolmaster father that he is serious in his longing to go to sea and is allowed to ship aboard a merchant brig. After a near-disastrous brush with a French privateer, he is pressed at sea and finds himself a ship’s boy on the frigate HMS Miranda. Sam serves as a powder monkey when the ship goes to quarters, hence the title of the first of Paul Dowswell’s young adult series of Historic Naval Fiction. (Dowswell’s title is not original; there are at least a dozen novels and a household cleanser of the same name.)

In this first-person narrative, we share Sam’s fear and desperation as he comes to realize that there is no escape from Miranda. Sam struggles to come to terms with his terror of battle and harsh naval discipline as well as the bullies and predators who loom out of the below-deck darkness. With the help of the older hands in his mess, he learns his duties and becomes more comfortable with shipboard routine. He realizes that his officers, while draconian, are even-handed and disinterested and can even show humanity on occasion. He steps lightly around lower deck bullies – not always successfully. Sam’s fear of the great guns that he and his mates serve slowly abates through repeated drills. Sam survives his first battle and the gunnery practice pays off as Miranda destroys a Spanish frigate, only to be captured by another before she can affect repairs. Thanks in large part to Sam’s intrepid actions, Miranda is recaptured from the prize crew and sails for home, only to be wrecked on the coast of Cornwall. His future rests on the decision he must make in the tiny Cornish village where he is cast ashore.

Powder Monkey is fast-paced and has enough action to engage grown-ups as well as young adults. Relationships are hugely important to early adolescents and Dowswell is true to this concern as Sam (sometimes to his surprise) works out who his real friends are. Sam’s progress aboard Miranda is a high-stakes version of the classic tale of the new boy in school who prevails in the face of demanding teachers and older bullies. Considering his young audience and the fact that the story is told from Sam’s point of view, Dowswell may be justified in finessing many details of ship handling, navigation, tactics and so on. Still, he has done his homework and, with only the odd gaffe, he describes Sam’s duties accurately. The gunnery passages are particularly well done. He stubs his toe on English grammar and usage a couple of times as well, most amusingly when he states that “…men who are hung lose control of their bladders…” Most encouragingly, Dowswell seems to find his rhythm and voice in the second half of the book. Both the writer and his character develop a good deal through this novel, and I look forward to meeting them again in the next book. ( )
1 vote pipester | May 3, 2009 |
The tale of Sam Witchall, contracted to a merchant ship and quickly press-ganged into the British navy, is frought with tension and danger as our protagonist fights for his life alongside his shipmates, but funny and warm in turn as Sam adapts to life aboard his new ship and makes friends with his fellow seamen. It was the details of life aboard ship that really hooked my interest with this one. ( )
  Clurb | Jan 26, 2009 |
Great book. I like the action and adventure of the 1800's. ( )
  wahoofan | Sep 12, 2008 |
13-year-old Sam Witchall has always felt the call of a life at sea, but he's not so desperate as to join the Royal Navy. Instead he finds himself a berth as a ship's boy aboard a small merchant vessel - relatively safe and with chances to return home to see his family and his sweetheart. But Sam's comfortable life aboard is turned upside down when he is pressed into service as a powder monkey (a boy who carries powder to the guns during battle) on the HMS Miranda. Far from a romantic adventure, Sam now lives in a world of harsh discipline, bullies, and constant threat of danger.

I'll admit it right up front - I adore ship books. Preferably elegant age-of-sail ships with tall masts any young, spirited protagonists, though any ship will do. Luckily this fit all of my favorite criteria. So it's no surprise that I couldn't keep myself from purchasing this when I saw it. Nor is it surprising that I loved it.

The book's greatest strength is its emphasis on realism. Sam doesn't want to be on board, he's frightened and chafes under the sudden restrictions to his former freedom. He's not extraordinarily clever, extraordinarily brave or kind. He's just a boy trying to make his way out of a nasty situation. And being onboard a fighting ship during the Napoleonic Wars was certainly nasty - about that the book leaves no doubt. It details the poor food, the threat of flogging for any infraction (real or imagined), officer tyrants and the fear of enemy fire. But it also shows the cameraderie, the friendships, the fun had by sailors skylarking in the rigging or singing at night.

This is a great read for those already interested in this sort of book, but there is no quest or great adventure like in Treasure Island or many other young adult ship books; this is more a book about the daily hardships (large and small) aboard a Navy ship of the time - which is fascinating, but not perhaps the best place to start for the uninitiated or those not already bitten by the sea bug.

Also posted at my blog. ( )
  Caramellunacy | Aug 7, 2008 |
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I have watched great men-o'-war raked and blazing, their crews scurrying like ants before the white-hot beam of a child's sun glass.
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Thirteen-year-old Sam endures harsh conditions, battles, and a shipwreck after being pressed into service aboard the HMS Miranda during the Napoleonic Wars.

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