Set in the alluring South Pacific, this coming-of-age novel describes three young friends on their personal and shared journies, reckoning with their past while looking toward a potential shared future. They work together through difficult situations aboard the wooden gaff-rigged sloop Plumbelly to leave their troubled lives behind and discover new opportunities.
The story not only envelops the teenagers, but also their parents: a vengeful, ultra-strict minister and absent mother; an abusive father we love to dislike and a cowering mom who has never stood up to him; and a conniving businessman trying to protect his sixteen-year-old daughter, whose oblivious mother is too doped up on valium to notice anything.
Who hasn’t thought of escaping to a remote Pacific island and living among the sea breezes and palm trees? The story cried out “escape, escape, escape” for the two buddies and a beautiful girlfriend. Rescue the seaworthy sloop abandoned in the harbor by a dead man and flee as soon and as far away as you can. But, reality sets in and their hejira ends in tragedy.
As I read Gary Maynard’s first novel, I was torn between what seemed to be a book written at two levels. One is a post-juvenile appeal story of Gabe, Lloyd, and Tanya fleeing their island home toward an uncertain future; the other a mature sailing adventure for sailors written by a sailor who has stood many a watch and traveled thousands of miles of blue water. The sailor-turned-author succinctly describes many of the details of a typical voyage, from negotiating a tropical storm to repairing a severely damaged wooden boat after she runs aground on a coral reef.
This dichotomy is punctuated with numerous typographic and grammatical errors in the bound advance copy I read. Despite these distractions, as I read on I was captivated by the characters who helped the teenagers deal with adversity: a native healer from the jungle surrounding the youths’ village, a Fijian tribal chief, and a Buddhist-like sage of a steamer captain. All assist them in some way while parsing out wisdom and a bit of humor.
The three protagonists, who lacked the skill or courage to strike out on their own, flee a variety of bullies by simply leveraging their conviction that together they can succeed. Though young, Gabe had traveled many miles by sailboat, and learned a lot along the way, enough to set out on a voyage of his own (perhaps a little too much for a fifteen-year-old, but then, I wasn’t raised on the water like he was). I can tell I’m getting old as I wince at the repeated use of the “f” word in today’s discourse and written dialogue. This facet of the novel put me off and I wonder if the story would have been just as rich if the characters had expressed themselves in other ways.
There were also times when the storyline included implausible scenes, like the school teacher taking advantage of Gabe on a class camping trip where only the teacher and one student attended. Though the situation played heavily in the rest of the story, it seemed a rather unlikely predicament.
The novel allowed me a bit of daydreaming as I’ve always been attracted to wooden gaff-rigged sloops, despite their upkeep challenges. (If dollars were unlimited, that rig would be my choice, no matter where I sailed.) And, I enjoyed reference to The Wind in the Willows and the sea chanty reminder “growl you may, but go you must” was a great addition when referring to having to take a turn on deck in terrible weather.
I imagine a late-teen or early adult co-reading this book with a grandparent, sharing the two worlds the novel represents. An old salt could explain the seafaring terminology and technique to an adventurous young person as they explore the novel together.
Plumbelly by Gary S. Maynard (Flat Hammock Press, 2018, 227 pages)