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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Books for Adults ~ Historical Fiction: Pirates & Privateers

                    Art: Silve
By Edward Chupack
St. Martin’s, 2008, hardback 
ISBN 978-0-312-37365-8, US $23.95 / CAN $26.95
Paperback ISBN 978-0-312-53936-8, US $14.95 / CAN $16.95

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Murdering always comes first. A person should murder each day before biscuits, as it improves the disposition. Aye, and a murder after supper benefits the digestion.
Those words sum up a most despicable villain, a pirate with no redeeming qualities, yet he fascinates us and has ever since Robert Louis Stevenson first introduced him to us. But who is Long John Silver? Silver is his tale “as written by me with a goodly amount of murder.” It explores how he accepts what fate dealt, living in reality, while learning the ways of the notorious rogues who prey on the seas. Woven throughout the book is a mystery tangled in history and secret codes, laced with murder and treachery, and pitting cunning against brawn. When the story opens, Silver shares his life testament, for he is dying – either from fever or the hangman’s noose, whichever happens first. He has solved the mystery and amassed a hidden treasure craved by one person, the man who intends to see him dance the hempen jig.

Silver is not your typical novel, for Edward Chupack turns the tables and makes Long John Silver the protagonist, when in actuality he is a villain, an antagonist. Like Silver who never gives up and hopes to escape no matter how dire the circumstances, we are compelled to continue the journey, unravel the mystery, and understand what forces make Silver who he is. How original is the tale? Does it remain true to Stevenson’s characters? In the author’s note, Chupack writes, “I could not have written an original novel had I incorporated large swaths of Stevenson’s classic . . . I could also not have satisfied the many, many lovers of Treasure Island if I did not include characters from that classic. I therefore used some of the characters . . . changed their dispositions, placed them in different circumstances, and sent them on a different quest.”

While reading this novel, I was researching how a novelist crafts a compelling and believable villain. The investigation had nothing to do with Chupack’s book; I did so for my column “Red Pencil,” which appears in the Historical Novel Society’s Solander Magazine. The November 2008 editing column examines John Shors’s Beside a Burning Sea, and John and I decided to show readers how the author creates a villain the reader hates. This isn’t an easy task, for the writer must avoid making this character a stereotypical antagonist. Chupack’s job is doubly complex, for his villain is also the “hero” of the novel. Long John Silver isn’t a “knight in shining armor” – Stevenson didn’t create him that way, and a pirate, by definition, is not someone to admire or emulate – but Chupack’s Silver isn’t someone you hate. He is charismatic and, as he unveils his origins, the hardships of his youth, his journey into piracy, his relationship with one woman, and his love for his ship, our compassion is fueled. We realize that though murderer and pirate he may be, he is never as ghastly as the actual villains that populate his tale. There is always one who is more ruthless and despicable than Silver; at the same time, he never lets you forget that “there is no other pirate like me on these waters” and that “the bottom of the sea is the right place for me.”

Silver doesn’t sugarcoat or romanticize pirates and what they do. This isn’t a story that will satisfy your need for a “happily ever after” ending. You will rejoice in the fact that you chose a more rewarding life; at the same time, you’ll wonder “what if.” That’s what makes this a fascinating and gripping voyage that will haunt you long after you close the cover. And isn’t that why you begin reading it in the first place?

Review Copyright ©2008 Cindy Vallar

For those who venture over to the other side of my website, the Thistle side, youl know that historical fiction plays a big role in my life. Twice a year, I enjoy writing “Red Pencil” because I not only get to read a good historical novel, but I also get to work with that book’s author to showcase how he or she takes an early draft of the work and turns it into the polished version the public gets to read. The November 2008 column focuses on how writers create villains readers love to hate. While working on the column, I received the following from Ed Chupack’s publicist. He, too, talks about villains, how he came to write Silver, and what he learned from readers’ reactions to the story. I think you’ll enjoy reading his article.

The Man in the Starched White Shirt
by Edward Chupack

So there I was, riding my usual train one day, in my starched white shirt, reading the newspaper and looking out the window, exceedingly happy, when I saw a book that another passenger was reading. The book was Sliver, but I misread the title and believed that the book’s title was Silver, and immediately envied the author that had come up with the idea of writing the memoirs of Long John Silver. Where could I buy that book?

I couldn’t help but imagine how I would have written the novel, the twists that I would have brought to the tale, and how I would have explored the concept of evil in all its forms in my novel. When I looked at the title of the book again, I discovered my error and, that same night on the train ride home, wrote the first words of the first chapter in Silver.

Wait a minute. The exploration of evil? I was happy. Wasn’t I? Well, yes – and an optimist to boot. I loved my job and had received promotion after promotion. I was making good, although not extravagant, money. My wife and I were no longer ordering pizza as often as possible on weekends to save money. We were no longer watching television on the floor, but had a couch, a Herculon couch from Sears no less. We could spill on it with impunity. We were able to go to the movies more often, buy the occasional bottle of wine, had lots of friends, and had started a family. We were healthy. So why was I writing about evil?

The protagonist of my novel was a pirate after all. I might have written about a fun-loving swashbuckler just like the ones in other books and in movies, but I was driven to create a character that was the embodiment of evil. Here’s why: I am a child of a Holocaust survivor and that starched white shirt could only protect me so much. My mother never spoke of her experiences during the war. I had studied the Holocaust, and nobody, not a single teacher, book, or student could give me a plausible answer why so many people were captivated by such a cruel dictator. I had to try to find out.

The Long John Silver that I created is charismatic. He is strong, witty, cunning, smart, and exceptionally likeable. The reader is supposed to root for Silver, at least for a time, at least until Solomon (a Jewish character fleeing the Inquisition) takes him on.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that almost all of my readers really liked Silver, and a good many of them disliked Solomon, a true hero. My readers wanted Silver to succeed and Solomon to fail. Worse, many of my readers identified with Silver. They wanted to be as free as him, to strike at their opponents with impunity. An anti-hero by any other name is still a hero.

We admire villains. It is an honest answer and all the more terrible for it.

We are drawn to evil characters, real and fictional ones, because of a need that we have for them that is akin to love: “Villain, you complete me.”

“I know that I do. Now just take this gun and . . .”

And let’s face it: I am no better. I wanted to write about evil to find out an answer, but was also entrapped by my character and reveled in his maliciousness.

So much has changed since I started writing Silver on the train many years ago. Both of my children are grown. I remain blessed in so many ways. A number of our friends have divorced. Some have passed away. We have a wine collection, don’t worry about spending too much for dinner, and have a number of couches – leather ones that aren’t more comfortable than our original couch but match the rest of the furniture. Our health is okay, although we’ve had our scares.

“Yes, villain. You complete me.”

“Of course I do.”

How scary we all are, in our starched white shirts, looking out windows and smiling as the landscape rolls by us, optimists, as if we did not know better, as if we should not be looking over the next hill to see if there is a figure there waiting for us with open arms and a pistol.

Copyright ©2008 Edward Chupack

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