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

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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: Vasa
Vasa: A Swedish Warship
Fred Hocker
Photographs by Anneli Karlsson
Medströms Bokfölag / Oxbow Books, 2011, ISBN 978-91-7329-101-9, $48 / £30


On a warm day in August 1628, Captain Söfring Hansson ordered his crew to cast off lines on King Gustav Adolf’s newest warship, Vasa. The crew raised the anchor and set sail for the summer fleet base. Aside from her crew, this most expensive and largest vessel carried dignitaries and passengers – men, women, and children – who expected a pleasant maiden voyage. After all, this was a new class of warship with two gundecks armed with a new kind of weaponry. Having traveled no more than a single nautical mile, however, Vasa heeled over and water poured through her open gun ports.
While many readers may never have heard of the Vasa, anyone who spends time reading about maritime or naval history probably has. This book tells her story from conception to rebirth as a museum in Stockholm. She was built at a time when war was a constant as nations battled for control of trade routes and resources; when ordinary people dealt with food shortages, disease, and violence; and when Europe realigned itself along religious lines, Protestantism on one hand and Catholicism on the other. Today, fifty years after the Vasa was raised, more than one million people visit her each year.
The book opens in 1628 soon after Vasa sets sail. A seaman, who is below deck, knows something is wrong even before the gust of wind strikes. Flash forward to 1958 when divers dig beneath the hull and one of the tunnels collapses. Three years later, the skeleton of the seaman is found, trapped under a gun carriage. Subsequent chapters examine different aspects of the ship – construction, rigging, staffing, sinking -- and focus on an individual involved in each phase, such as Margareta Nilsdotter, the widow of the shipwright who had contracted to build the new warship, or Lieutenant Petter Gierdsson, who worked with the ship’s master to set up the masts, yards, sails, and rigging.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating chapters concerns the symbolism in the carvings and sculptures found on Vasa. Hocker discusses not only the usual ornamentation, such as the figurehead, but also those found in the ship’s heads. This chapter also features a fold-out, color spread of the ship’s stern that showcases the intricate sculptures as they appear now and how the stern looked at the time she sailed.

Equally intriguing are the skeletons and what they tell us about the men and women who lost their lives on that fateful day. “The Sinking” includes a forensic sculptor’s reconstruction of these people, which makes them real, rather than merely bones. This chapter also examines the questions that arose after Vasa sank: How did a light breeze prove so fatal? Since she was built by a master shipwright and commanded by an experienced captain, why did she sink? Who was at fault?
The final chapters discuss the consequences of the sinking; attempts to locate, salvage, and refloat the warship, beginning in 1664 and culminating in 1961; and Vasa today. While much of the historical evidence for this book comes from original documents, Hocker includes a list of sources that is subdivided according to the book’s chapters. An index is also included.
Each page is beautifully illustrated with color photographs and images of the artifacts, places, people, and documents. The double-page spreads provide glimpses of displays and exhibits from the museum to provide readers with well-labeled and clear explanations about the illustration. For example, the one of the Stockholm Navy Yard in 1627 shows the men building Vasa while insets enlarge the small details of the various activities occurring in the shipyard. All the visual material reinforces and enhances the narrative to provide readers with a more comprehensive understanding of this warship and her importance in history.

Stockholm Navy Yard
  Used with permission from publisher

Fred Hocker, an archaeologist and historian, has written a compelling and riveting account of this famous warship. He also spins a fabulous story that brings to life the seventeenth century and the people who built, crewed, and raised the Vasa. He dispels some of the myths that have surfaced over the years as to why she sank, and he explains how guns were cast and battles were fought in this period of history. Hocker understands his principal audience, for his explanations on various aspects of ships and shipbuilding are crisp, clear, and succinct so the general layman can quickly grasp the content. As readers absorb the wealth of material found within the pages of this book, they gain a better understanding of the importance of the Vasa and a king who understood how naval warfare would change long before those alterations occurred.
Review Copyrighted ©2012 Cindy Vallar

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