Powder Monkey, by Paul Dowswell; Bloomsbury
USA Children's Books: New York, 2005; $16.95
Imagine the fear of being blown to pieces at any minute! Thirteen-year-old Samuel Witchall constantly faced this horror in the action-packed historical adventure, Powder Monkey. Being blown up was just one danger Sam had to endure aboard a Navy fighting ship in 1800. While reading this book, I kept wondering why any boy who wasn't crazy would want to be a sailor in this time period. But it was the book's vivid descriptions that helped me understand the thrill of a reckless adventure and how it could tempt men and boys out of their comfortable homes to the sea.
The book opens with Sam wishing to be a sailor so he can discover the world beyond his tiny town. He ends up on a merchant ship which is quickly taken over by a British Royal Navy frigate called the HMS Miranda. This sleek, 32-gun boat is so precisely described I felt I was bobbing in the sea looking up at its dazzling beauty.
Sam is forced to work on the vessel as a powder monkey, running back and forth to the Miranda's gun deck delivering powder to the cannon crews. Sam is told he needs to be like a monkey because monkeys are nimble creatures. He's also told if one stray spark floats onto his gunpowder delivery he will be blown to a pink mist! I've never heard of a more stressful job for a kid than powder monkey.
Sam had to confront so much brutal stuff, including: fierce fighting, raging storms, punishment, mutiny, and death. Yet, the day-to-day annoyances of Sam's life hit me the hardest. I'm not a morning person, and on a Navy ship in 1800 I would have been extremely miserable. If a sailor isn't awake and out of his hammock in double speed, the hammock is cut down or the sailor's head is assaulted by a knotted rope! I wouldn't get used to this. Sam never did. Sam says he "dreamed of a fresh, warm bed, and the freedom to stay in it until the weariness left his bones." Up until reading this book, I thought it was really hard to get out of bed for school. Now I realize things could be much worse. I can't imagine giving up my safe, warm home for Sam's life! This doesn't mean, however, I wasn't captivated by every word describing Sam's adventures.
By far, my favorite part of this book was when Sam's courage is tested after a Spanish ship captures the Miranda in a miserable battle. Sam's crewmates plan to take their ship over again, with Sam playing a key role. He sneaks through dark passages, swims through freezing, rat-filled water and outsmarts his captors on his way to the weapons room where he steals cutlasses, axes, and swords. Sam's adventure made my heart race as I tried to imagine how stealthy and brave I could be in this situation.
Until Powder Monkey, the author, Paul Dowswell, had never written a fiction book. He wrote mostly history and science books. For a rookie fiction writer, Mr. Dowswell sure tells an absorbing tale. Knowing the author's background, I'm not surprised this book is brimming with actual history and technical maritime details.
This is a really great book that I'd recommend to many people, including: historical fiction readers, Blackbeard and other pirate fans, maritime history buffs and lovers of the movie Master and Commander! In my case, I'm always looking for an unforgettable adventure. I found a WILD one in Powder Monkey!