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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Black Flags, Blue Waters                    A Furious Sky

Cover Art:
        Black Flags, Blue Waters
Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates
By Eric Jay Dolin
Liveright, 2018, ISBN 978-1-63149-210-5, US $29.95 / CAN $39.95


For five decades encompassing the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, pirates played an integral role in colonial history and life. Initially, they were welcomed, but as the years passed, what was once profitable coexistence became a dogged determination to eradicate these sea marauders.

Black Flags, Blue Waters presents the “celebrities” of this “golden age” of piracy with a narrowly focused lens. Most comparable volumes look at this historical period in a broad manner that encompasses the whole breadth of who, where, what, why, when, and how. Dolin examines one facet – those pirates with intimate connections to the American colonies – to showcase how world events and shifting attitudes led to them being seen as the “enemies of all mankind.” In doing so, he demonstrates how these criminals also became more legendary with the passage of time. This approach also permits him to showcase rarely mentioned pirates, as well as names familiar to many people today.

The narrative unfolds in chronological order. The first chapter, Small Beginnings, sets the stage, providing necessary background information to orient readers. The next two chapters – Welcomed with Open Arms and “Where the Money Was as Plenty as Stones and Sands” – explores the financial connection between pirates and the colonists, as well as the danger this interaction posed to England, and the transitions that shifted piracy from the Caribbean and Atlantic seaboard to the Indian Ocean and Madagascar and back again. Crackdown, the fourth chapter, concerns the mysterious Henry Avery. While he has no tangible connection to America, his capture and plundering of a single ship made the pirates wealthy and severely impacted how governments, the media, and people viewed pirates.

Like intermission at a theater, chapters five and six provide key information readers need to know to fully understand this historical time period. War’s Reprieve discusses the War of the Spanish Succession, when pirates all but disappeared from the world stage. In the war’s aftermath came the greatest upsurge in sea marauders that history has ever witnessed. It also gave rise to a different class of pirates than those who came before. Interlude, or a Pirate Classification covers the reasons for this and investigates who these people were and how they operated.

The subsequent chapters – Treasure and the Tempest, The Gentleman Pirate and Blackbeard, and Fading Away – introduce pirates, such as Samuel Bellamy, Stede Bonnet, Edward Thatch, and Edward Low – whose personalities and exploits commanded the attention of the public and the authorities alike during their lifetimes. Also discussed are the pirate hunters and the laws and punishments enacted to end the marauding.

Dolin concludes his narrative with his epilogue, “Yo-ho-ho, and a Bottle of Rum!” Here he explores the public’s fascination, both then and now, with pirates, including the discoveries of actual pirate shipwrecks.

Maps and illustrations pepper the pages throughout Black Flags, Blue Waters. The majority appear in black and white, but a vibrant collection of color plates is also present. (One curious note concerning one caption is the identification of Low’s Jolly Roger. The contemporary accounts I’ve read describe his flag as a red skeleton on a black background, rather than a white skeleton with an hourglass and three drops of blood.) Unfamiliar words and brief historical tidbits are noted at the bottom of the pages where they occur, while source citations and longer explanations can be found in the end notes. Dolin also provides readers with a select bibliography and an index.

The predominant personages readers meet are pirates, men such William Kidd, Henry Morgan, Dixie Bull, Thomas Tew, Francis Drake, John Quelch, and John Rose Archer. (Technically, Drake falls outside the time parameters of this history, but he did raid the American coast. Morgan, however, is a questionable inclusion. He may have been the greatest of the buccaneers, but his raids always centered in the Caribbean and Spanish Main.) But history and people never occur within a void. There are always others involved, and Dolin introduces these too. Among those who aided and abetted the pirates are Adam Baldridge and Governor Benjamin Fletcher. Victims who suffered at the hands of pirates include Philip Ashton and John Fillmore. Then there are those who helped to bring about their demise, such as Governor Alexander Spotswood, Lieutenant Robert Maynard, and Captain Peter Solgard.

Entertaining and compelling, Black Flags, Blue Waters is a swift-flowing, all-inclusive account of the history and evolution of piracy from 1680 through 1730. Dolin transports readers back in time so they better understand the time and places where intimidation, pillaging, cruelty, political intrigue, collusion, and punishment eventually led to the downfall of these “enemies of all mankind.” A worthy and must-read addition to any reputable pirate collection.
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Review Copyrighted ©2018 Cindy Vallar

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Cover Art: A Furious Sky
A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes
By Eric Jay Dolin
Liveright, 4 August 2020, ISBN 978-1-63149-527-4, US $29.95
Also available in e-book and audio formats


What is a hurricane? A picture immediately forms in your mind, especially if you’ve experienced even just the peripheral fury of such a storm. Moist, warm air. Swirling, violent wind. Torrential downpours. Colossal waves. Swells of flood water. A tranquil eye that belies even greater devastation as the storm passes over. Yet, as with many questions, there is no simple answer, and the power of even just an average hurricane unleashes the same energy as 10,000 nuclear bombs. Within the pages of A Furious Sky, Dolin not only tackles the answer to this question, but also discusses the evolution of these storms and our ability to monitor and forecast them. At the same time, he takes us on a gut-wrenching journey through five centuries of history to experience hurricanes that have struck America and to meet individuals who experienced the devastating wrath of Mother Nature.

Dolin focuses on three aspects of hurricanes in this book: the storm as it approaches and makes landfall, its impact on individuals and places, and the response of people and government immediately after it passes. The story opens on 26 June 1957, just before Audrey came ashore in Louisiana. Her sustained winds were 145 miles an hour. She brought with her a storm surge of twelve feet and waves as high as fifteen feet. She took the lives of about 500 people, left 5,000 others homeless, and tore apart almost every building in Cameron Parish, resulting in losses of between $150,000,000 and $200,000,000. To create a more poignant account than just a recitation of facts, Dolin introduces us to specific people whose lives are forever changed. In this case, Dr. Cecil and Sybil Clark. By doing so, we experience viscerally their harrowing ordeal and the tragic events that unfold.

While this is not a comprehensive account of every hurricane to strike America, Dolin does a commendable job choosing those of particular interest to many of us. The earliest storms have neither names nor scale ratings, but they are significant nonetheless. Among these are the 1609 hurricane that is believed to have been the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s The Tempest; the dire experience of two men during the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635, one whose family would play leading roles in New England religion and politics; and the hurricane that destroyed Spain’s Treasure Fleet of 1715, which influenced piratical history during what has become known as the golden age of piracy. Among the many other hurricanes explored in this book are the Galveston Hurricane of 1900; the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935; Hugo; Isabel; Carol, Edna, Hazel, and Connie – the first storms to have their names retired; Camille; Andrew; Iniki; Katrina; Sandy; and from the “season that wouldn’t quit,” Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

A New and Violent World; The Law of Storms; Seeing into the Future; Obliterated; Death and Destruction in the Sunshine State; The Great Hurricane of 1938; Into, Over, and Under the Maelstrom; A Rogues’ Gallery; and Stormy Weather Ahead – these are the chapters that enlighten and inform us about the storms themselves, the history of weather forecasting, and scientific discoveries and technology associated with hurricanes. Dolin incorporates a plethora of firsthand quotations throughout the narrative, as well as peppering it with illustrations related to specific hurricanes, such as before and after a storm passed over a particular place. There is also a center section of color artwork, charts, photographs, and satellite images. In addition to a section of notes at the end of the book, which provide citations and additional information, he also provides footnotes throughout the book to explain important details at the bottom of some pages. The appendix consists of two tables that rank the costliest hurricanes. There are also a select bibliography and an index.

A Furious Sky
is a spellbinding look at the history of hurricanes that have struck America. What makes this an even more vital addition to the study of hurricanes is that Dolin doesn’t examine each storm in a void. Instead, he shows the profound impact each has had on people and places, as well as how they have shaped our country. This journey encompasses hurricanes from Christopher Columbus’s voyages of discovery to Maria’s decimation of Puerto Rico. He presents scientific concepts in easy-to-understand language that keeps us just as interested as the visceral survivors’ accounts. He introduces us to unlikely heroes – some well-known, like Dan Rather whose coverage of one storm to hit Texas forever changed the way hurricanes are reported in the media; others forgotten, like Father Benito Viñes, a Jesuit who helped save many people in the 1800s because of his fascination with these storms. Dolin’s masterful storytelling intertwines weather, history, politics, invention, and technology in a way that leaves us with a “you are there” feeling. It is an experience not to be missed and not soon forgotten.

Book review Copyright ©2020 by Cindy Vallar

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