three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
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The Passages of Joshua Slocum

A-The Hard Way AroundGeoffrey Wolff is a professor emeritus of English at the University of California at Irvine, where he led the postgraduate creative writing program until 2006. He has published a variety of fiction and nonfiction, including biographies of Harry Crosby and John O'Hara.

The Topic: Best known as the first to circumnavigate the globe solo--an event he chronicled in Sailing Alone Around the World (1900)--veteran seaman Joshua Slocum led a rich and adventurous life before his record-setting success. Born in 1844, Slocum fled his unhappy Nova Scotian childhood by signing on with a merchant ship at the age of 16. A quick study with a gift for navigation, he advanced rapidly and took command of his own ship nine years later. During the next 20 years, he captained eight vessels and endured hurricanes, epidemics, mutinies, pirate attacks, shipwrecks, and the death of his beloved first wife and three of their seven children before refitting a derelict oyster boat, the Spray, for his epic adventure around the world.
Knopf. 240 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9781400043422

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"It's a tribute to Wolff's own narrative powers that his readers aren't tempted to put his book aside for Slocum's. Good thing, too, because Slocum's life was filled with adventures about which, as Wolff points out, ‘he'd been too busy to write.'" Heller McAlpin

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"As it turns out, Slocum's back story is just as enthralling, if not more so, than anything that happened to him aboard the Spray. Indeed, portions of his life read like a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson." Nathaniel Philbrick

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"How this youngster whose education ended in third grade rose quickly from the rank of ordinary seaman to master of a vessel in 1869, then went on to command several clipper ships before becoming the first person to sail around the world alone, makes for a fascinating true story in the hands of award-winning novelist and biographer Geoffrey Wolff. ... And what a rich portrait he assembles, using quotes and material from Slocum, other writer/sailors like Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, and scholars such as Walter Teller, Slocum's first biographer, and Victor Slocum, one of Slocum's seven children." Irene Wanner

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The early chapters seemed slow-moving, especially for anyone expecting an adventure story. ... But I kept reading, propelled by Mr. Wolff's engaging description of the life of a young seaman during the great age of sail." G. Bruce Knecht

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[An occasionally confusing narrative and unhelpful classical allusions pale] in comparison to the frequent bizarreness of his prose. ... However, Wolff does a remarkably good job of explaining the realities of 19th-century sailing: the variety of skills necessary to command a ship or be second mate, the brutally hard work required of officers and crew, and the complete isolation of long voyages." Kevin O'Kelly

Critical Summary

The Hard Way Around, claimed the New York Times Book Review, is "the best of books: a literary biography that also happens to be an adventure story," and most critics agreed. Wolff concentrates his narrative on Slocum's fascinating and fast-moving early life, following the expert seaman from port to port and misfortune to misfortune while constructing a richly detailed portrait of life during the great age of sail. Although the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal found fault with Wolff's prose style, which swings erratically from cultivated to colloquial, the other critics, perhaps caught up in tales of tempests and pirates, ignored any awkwardness. Abounding with splendid seafaring lore, Hard Way is an engaging account of a stalwart sailor and his romantic bygone era.

Supplementary Reading

Sailing Alone Around the World | Joshua Slocum (1900): Hailed as "an intoxicating masterpiece" by the Wall Street Journal, Slocum's vivid account of his perilous voyage around the globe has inspired sailors and adventure seekers for over a century.