The Voyage

by Philip Caputo

Published by Knopf

420 pages, 1999

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The Wind in Her Sails

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


"It's a new century, boys. Yes, indeed, a brand-new century." That's all the explanation Cyrus Braithwaite offers his three young sons when he sets them loose on the ocean in the family's 46-foot schooner Double Eagle with instructions to, "set sail on this tide and not show your faces until school starts in September."

It's the early summer of 1901 and the boys are 16, 15 and 13. Nathaniel, Eliot and Andrew have sailed with their father on occasion since early childhood, but nothing has prepared them for this abandonment. The three toy with what it is their father wants of them. Is it some test of their mettle and their heart? Is there some reason he wants them out of the way for a while? But they suspect the reason is darker than any of that: which is what makes it beyond their reach. In his voice and manner when he makes his edict, the boys think they detect something disturbing: their father doesn't really care where they go or what they do. Something that their sheltered and affluent lives have not hinted at before.

On their own in a magnificent and well provisioned ship, they have a limited amount of cash (along with instructions to make it last as they won't get more), charts for the entire eastern seaboard and a very excellent compass, Nathaniel -- the eldest and designated by their father to be captain -- gets the idea that Cyrus has intended them to undertake some moral mission. It is when his captainhood sinks in that the fire in Nathaniel is stoked:

She's mine, he thought. A fluttering came to his sternum, which he touched with a forefinger and felt an artery squirming just beneath his skin. Double Eagle was his. For only three months, really a little less than that, yet, by Christ, his to sail wherever he pleased, when he pleased. The tiny serpent rose into his windpipe, coiled itself in the hollow beneath his Adam's apple, and stole part of each breath he drew.

The addition to the crew of Nathaniel's older friend, Will Terhune makes for an almost unbearable amount of testosterone. Will signs on as navigator and it becomes fairly obvious fairly quickly that four young men with the world at their feet are liable to get into some trouble. After casting about for a destination -- after all, they can go anywhere! -- Nathaniel and Will decide on the Florida Keys and the Tropic of Cancer and the scene of one of their father's most heroic seagoing adventures. They calculate that from their home harbor in Maine, "if we sailed east as far as we're going south, we'd be halfway across the Atlantic."

In author Philip Caputo's hands, the schooner Double Eagle becomes an important character in the story. The powerful Atlantic ends up being yet another. Few have written about the sea with Caputo's sure touch. It's impossible not to get sucked into the vortex of this adventure, so surely does the author handle these sails.

Sunset. Cumulus towering in the south, their tops spreading into anvils edged in a gold incandescence. Lightning trembled in the clouds, and the wind, yearned for in the morning, came on with the venom of an answered prayer. They sailed into the heart of a squall, main furled and foresail double-reefed, and when they sailed out of it, it was as though they had passed through a door from a tumultuous room and into a serene one. The seas laid down, stars glittered like crystal rivers, and far behind the wake, the army of flickering clouds retreated to fading drum rolls of thunder.

The portion of the story that deals with the boys and their voyage is nothing short of splendid. Elements of mystery (the father who's cut them adrift, as it were), adventure, the development of character and the strength of family ties all work together to make the story a very memorable one. The introduction of a contemporary character, Sybil Braithwaite, the descendant of Cyrus through his son Eliot, is responsible for the unevenness present in The Voyage.

Sybil is a sort of junior family historian, and we find that the story we're reading -- that of Nathaniel, Eliot and Andrew on the high seas -- is being reconstructed by Sybil in an attempt to unravel a long held family secret. So the fictional woman of our own time is writing about her fictional family, putting the pieces together with Braithwaite memorabilia: Double Eagle 's battered log supplemented with various photos and documentation, oral histories and some sort of collective family unconscious with which Sybil fills in some of the missing pieces.

Rather than strengthening the tale, however, Sybil's interloping weakens it. Is what we're reading about the three fictional boys actually what fictionally happened? Or has fictional Sybil put the pieces together badly? Suspending belief is our job as readers of fictional works. However, these tales within tales put an unnecessary burden on the credibility of the story -- not to mention demanding the addition of several characters who don't really do much to move things ahead -- and cause a literary rift in an otherwise wonderful work. I would have preferred a more traditional arc of storytelling here, with elements of plot leading to our understanding of the father's motivations and the mysteries that were afoot with various members of the Braithwaite clan while the boys were off heading into hurricanes and looking for sunken treasure.

Despite Sybil's well-intentioned meddling, The Voyage is a first-rate maritime adventure quite worthy of the praise it has already received. | January 2000


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.