Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Fiction
To most readers, the name James Leander Cathcart means little. Yet his life provides the threads that Evans, a historical novelist, weaves together to create a fabric of intrigue, adventure, calamity, and triumph in Barbary Slave. I’ve encountered Cathcart’s name in my research on Barbary corsairs, but I know little of this man’s actual life. Prior to the opening of this novel, this seventeen-year-old Irish immigrant has served aboard a Continental frigate during the American Revolution and spent two years as a prisoner-of-war aboard prison hulks in New York, including the notorious Jersey, before he escaped. With the end of the war, he becomes a merchant seaman and, in the summer of 1785, he sets sail aboard the Maria as second mate. This is where Barbary Slave opens.
For the most part, Jim and the first mate oversee the day-to-day sailing of the sloop, for her captain, who is also Jim’s uncle, spends most of his time drunk in his cabin. Jim would prefer to sail with his father, but he disappeared while sailing to the Caribbean. Also lost on that voyage is Will Melman’s father. Will, Jim’s best friend, is the Maria’s cook, but being black and smart are qualities not everyone appreciates. Their journey to Cadiz is uneventful until the sloop is becalmed off the Portuguese coast. Without wind to fill the sails, they quickly fall prey to Barbary pirates. Rather than fight, the captain surrenders. Jim, Will, and the rest of the Marias are stripped, beaten, and imprisoned in the putrid hold of the xebec.
Taken to Algiers, Jim is separated from Will and becomes one of the dey’s slaves. His ingenuousness with Muslim ways and his inability to turn base metal into gold eventually result in him being relegated to prison where life is far different than what he experienced in the palace. He endures humiliation and brutality until Señor Alphonse Gaston, a slave who is also the dey’s first Christian secretary, takes Jim under his wing. Apprenticed to various masters, Jim slowly adapts to his new life without free will. He acquires new skills and languages as Gaston helps him to navigate the hierarchy of slavery. As his star rises, he aids his fellow crewmen and uncle, who show only derisive ingratitude anytime he attempts to better their lives.
Through Gaston, Jim reunites with Will, whose path as a slave follows a different path. He has converted to Islam, adopted the name of Ahmed al-Hakim, and become a janissary. His skill and bravery allow him to rise through the ranks of this elite military corps of the Ottoman Empire. What little time they spend together is on the sly, until money goes missing in the harbor master’s accounts where Jim works. Forgetting the lessons he has learned, he accuses his master, who then tells the dey that Jim is the one who stole the funds. With his life hanging in the balance, Jim is offered a way out of the mess he’s in. A caravan of slaves and gold, intended for the dey, has gone missing. If Jim can recover the items, the life he has known will be restored. Ahmed/Will will help in this endeavor, but the likelihood that either of them will survive is slim. Those who stole these items have no intention of returning them, and Jim and Ahmed must ally themselves with the blue-veiled Tuareg, a nomadic warrior tribe experiencing its own inner conflicts.
Readers seeking a rousing piratical adventure will need to look elsewhere, for this is a story about the victims and what they endure. Also, Barbary Slave will not appeal to everyone, because some readers will object to the language and intimate situations incorporated into the story. Evans is upfront about this before the story begins; while I have no problem with using language true to the period, it should be relegated to dialogue and the point-of-view character’s inner reflection, rather than being included in a prologue without either that is purely meant to lay the foundation of what is to come. Evans includes a two-page glossary at the end of the book, and while the story provides a brief summary of Cathcart’s later years, I wish the author had included an afterword to explain where he veered from the facts – a few events seem too fantastic to be true – and what became of the historical characters in the story, especially Cathcart and how his eleven-year experience as a slave impacted the rest of his life. Aside from these caveats, I found Barbary Slave a notable and plausible tale that provides a breath of fresh air from the usual pirate fare set in the Caribbean. Evans’ research and ability to recreate the world in which Jim lives shine through.
Book Review Copyright ©2013 Cindy Vallar
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