From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.
In 1830 former slave Rutherford ("Illinois") Calhoun becomes a stowaway on the Republic rather than escape his debts by a forced marriage. What he doesn't know is that the ship's captain is the sadistic dwarf Falcon, famous for his intellect and his various escapades, and that the ship is headed to Africa for a cargo of mysterious slaves, the Allmuseri. The captain has brought one additional thing on board--whatever it might be, it is kept in a massive crate, feared by all, and drives the cabin boy insane when he is sent to feed it. Using the colorful language and colloquialisms of the time to vividly describe the voyage, characters, and actions of the crew, Johnson creates an odd and stirring adventure, filled with stench and rot and the terror not just of ancient sea travel, but also of what humans can and have done to one another. Illinois, whose journal forms the tale, is a thief and a scoundrel whose spiritual awakening is told with verve, wit, and compassion. --Eloise Kinney
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This out-of-the-ordinary adventure yarn describes the harrowing experiences of one Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave who wanders to New Orleans from rural Illinois in 1830. He becomes entangled with Isadora, a prim, devout schoolmarm with her eyes set on marriage. To escape this fate, Calhoun ships out on a leaky vessel that turns out to be an illegal slave ship under the direction of deformed, perverted Captain Falcon. The horrors of the voyage are chronicled in grotesque detail in Calhoun's journal, and his outlook on life undergoes a radical alteration as a result of the trip. A colorful, imaginative tale that strains credibility, particularly at the end, but succeeds as entertainment.-- Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., Va. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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A savage parable of the black experience in America, Johnson's picaresque novel begins in 1830 when Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed Illinois slave eking out a living as a petty thief in New Orleans, hops aboard a square-rigger to evade the prim Boston schoolteacher who wants to marry him. But the Republic , no riverboat, turns out to be a slave clipper bound for Africa. Calhoun, a witty narrator conversant with the works of Chaucer and Beethoven and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, hates himself for acting as henchman to the ship's captain, a dwarfish, philosophizing tyrant. Before the rowdy, drunken crew can spring a mutiny, African slaves recently taken on board stage a successful revolt. Blending confessional, ship's log and adventure, the narrative interweaves a disquisition on slavery, poverty, race relations and an African worldview at odds with Western materialism. In luxuriant, intoxicating prose Johnson ( The Sorcerer's Apprentice ) makes the agonized past a prism looking onto a tense present. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Johnson's exciting sea narrative provides an unusual historical look at the horrifying Middle Passage experience. The protagonist is a free black sailor serving aboard a slave ship and recording events in the vessel's logbook during the summer of 1830. Rutherford Calhoun is a philosophic wanderer who goes to sea seeking escape from life's perils, but instead is thrown into more dangerous situations. The story contains resonances of Melville's works. Like Moby-Dick's Ahab, the captain of the Republic is on his own special quest (in this case, the capture of the African trickster god). There is even the cabin boy's encounter of terror with the mysterious god that reminds us of Pip's frightening experience at sea in Melville's novel. When the Africans wrest control of the vessel, we recall the slave ship revolt that Melville described in Benito Cereno. Calhoun is an Ishmael character who survives to tell the tragic tale that occurred upon the high seas, where life-and-death experiences are faced without the illusions of order and meaning that exist back on the land. At the end, Calhoun says, "The voyage had irreversibly changed my seeing." Johnson's novel contains gripping scenes of action and suspense as the protagonist meditates about the ocean universe. Above all, the book is valuable in offering a rare perspective of the shocking experience of the slave trade and the consequences of that event for American blacks. Will appeal to general readers and all college students. -A. Costanzo, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania