Author David Grann is no stranger to writing engrossing and compelling historical narratives. His 2010 title, “The Lost City of Z,” was made into a 2016 film telling the tale of British explorer Percy Fawcett and his quest for an Amazonian civilization. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is scheduled for film release in October of 2023. Set in the 1920s, it recounts the story of members of the Osage Native American tribe in Oklahoma who are murdered after oil is found on their land.
Now, in his latest novel, “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder,” which was released in April, he takes readers on a rollicking ride on the high seas in 1740. At this time, England was at war with Spain. Control of the seas was paramount for both countries.
The Wager is one of seven ships commissioned to seek and find a Spanish galleon reportedly carrying tremendous treasure in the hull. The officers and crew may have dreams of shared loot, buoyed naval careers, and glorious tales of high sea adventure to share, but theirs is a different story.
Wedged in the RocksAfter months at sea, with no sign of the Spanish galleon and losing sight of other ships in the squadron, the Wager is shipwrecked off the coast of Patagonia, barely escaping death when perilously passing around Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. Already ravished by scurvy and disheartened spirits, what’s left of the crew seek shelter on a desolate and windswept island.
Their story of survival quickly takes a sinister and dark turn. Think William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” on steroids. What little food is left on the ship is parceled out in meager portions by their captain, David Cheap, who believes that ruling with an iron fist is the best course. But his authority is rapidly questioned as the men break up into warring factions. They are no longer at sea. They are now on land, so do the rules of who governs change?
Emaciated is an understatement when describing the condition of those left of the Wager’s crew. Beset by starvation and exhaustion, not to mention the tumultuous weather, the scantily clad seamen descend into a Hobbesian world, fearing the loss of self and soul at the hands of their colleagues. Their minds conjure up beasts and malicious motivations, some true and others imagined.
The island offers little in the way of sustenance other than seaweed and a type of sea celery. Grann does an apt job describing their miserable conditions as their bodies, minds, and souls deteriorate even as they try to claim mastery over the bleak wilderness that surrounds them.
Mad and Mutinous?It is a feisty but very capable gunner, John Bulkeley, who eventually persuades the majority of the seamen to join him in building a craft that will carry them back to England.
Leaving their captain with a few of his most stalwart supporters, Bulkeley commandeers their newly crafted boat, which is named the Speedwell, and heads back through the Strait of Magellan with a course set for England and certain validation by the Admiralty for their decision to abandon their captain, whom they are convinced is a lunatic, and be hailed as heroes.
The sets of stories don’t match, and each is subject to manipulation as these returnees attempt to shape their stories to suit their own purposes.
A SpellbinderPerhaps it's a parable for our turbulent times: Their future will be determined by who wins the war over the truth as the layers of disinformation are peeled back.
Grann introduces readers to a variety of characters, but one of the most endearing is the 16-year-old midshipman, a young and enthusiastic gentleman named John Byron. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that he survives the entirety of this beyond-belief ordeal. Bryon, with perhaps literary genes in his makeup, is the main chronicler and observer of all that is happening around him. (He is the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, one of the leading figures of the Romantic movement.)
Grann’s narrative is spellbinding. It’s a page-turner. Readers will want to know what happens to these men, plucked from history and brought to life in a riveting tale of extreme survival and ultimate judgment.