Book Review: Board the Sparrowhawk
by Ari Armstrong, December 4, 2002
"I am a Skelley man! We are all Skelley men -- those of us man enough to cherish their liberty!"
What are we to make of a man who quotes Aristotle and writes of a gang of English smugglers who live to beat tax collectors and who say things like, "There is romance in commerce" and "a man's life is his own"? One thing we can say of him is that he's a damn fine novelist. Another is that his picture of 18th Century England seems to project back the image of Rand's noble pirate Ragnar Danneskjold. But Edward Cline doesn't leave us guessing: in the acknowledgments page of his novel Sparrowhawk--Book One: Jack Frake, he writes Ayn Rand "confirmed my approach to life."
Cline's prose is appropriately easy-going and his story is straight-forward. It focuses on Jack Frake, who grows from a mentally and physically impoverished lad into a smartly educated and self-confident member of Skelley's gang.
Skelley, of course, is the leader of the outlaws who rescues victims of an abusive state and trades tax-free (and thus illegal) goods. Frake gets caught up with the group when he attempts to rescue Skelley's friend Redmagne from involuntary military servitude. And the Sparrowhawk is a ship that carries goods and people between England and the colonies.
I suppose I can reveal the plot development -- since it's mentioned on the books' back cover -- that Frake eventually winds up on the Sparrowhawk destined for the Americas. But I shan't reveal how that happens.
Cline's second novel in the series was just released: Hugh Kenrick. We are told that Jack and Hugh will meet up in the third book. We can glean something of Cline's direction from his comment, "I owe a debt of thanks to the Founders for having given me something worth writing about, and a country in which to write it." One purpose of Book One is to provide a sense of the intellectual backdrop that led to American independence. Part of Skelley's oath refers to "life, liberty and property."
Though Frake works for Skelley, his mentor is Redmagne, truly a "Renaissance Man." One of Redmagne's central projects is the writing and publishing of a work of fiction called Hyperborea. He describes it as "a wonderful story about a land much like our own, but where there are no kings, [and] no customs men... No kings! Can you imagine it? ... Hyperborea threw off its bondage, and became a happy land, a great land, a prosperous land. Suppose -- Oh! Wild imagination! -- suppose our colonies in America did such a thing?" But, Redmagne tells Jack, he'll have to publish under a pseudonym, otherwise "I would be hanged, and before that, forced to watch the hangman burn my book."
Much of the story revolves around the Skelley gang's attempts to stay in business and the authorities' attempts to catch its members. Through this, Jack struggles to find the words to describe the budding philosophy of freedom.
An incident from Jack's childhood gives him a rudimentary understanding of property rights. Jack and his father build a fence to protect the family's garden from wandering animals and men. But the community tears down the fence on the grounds that it stands on community property. Jack begins to understand the relationship between property rights and freedom: "Did it matter if one's body were left free to erect fences, only to have them seized at any time, for any reason? How could one go on erecting fences, or producing anything, if that likelihood always hovered in the air?"
Cline clearly has an ideological ax to grind. Yet he does a nice job integrating the ideas into a compelling story in a way that drives the characters and their actions. Cline writes a good story first, one that happens to advance a particular libertarian perspective. The fact that Cline chose to write historical novels lets him explore the driving ideas of those eras.
The story opens with Jack Frake sitting on the shore gazing out at the ocean, having just seen a map for the first time. Finally, he recognized his place in the world. Cline's novel is something of an intellectual map that reminds Americans of the origins of their freedom. In today's world, such a map is sorely needed.