Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Cruise of the Dazzler by Jack London

For the sailor at heart, young or old
Young Joe Bronson just can’t seem to focus on his studies. Constantly distracted by opportunities for bicycling, ball playing, kite flying, and occasional fist fighting, he prefers the spirit of adventure and the freedom of the outdoors to being cooped up in a classroom poring over dusty old books. His apathy towards his studies inevitably brings about a clash with his father, who serves him an ultimatum to either shape up or ship out. Joe opts for the latter and runs off to join the crew of a sloop dubbed the Dazzler. In the eyes of this teenage boy, what could be more exciting, glamorous, and exotic than the carefree life of a sailor? Though his captain, French Pete, is a shady drunkard, Joe bonds with his crewmate, the ’Frisco Kid, a boy his own age whose relative wealth of experience on the water makes him worthy of idolization. Joe soon realizes, however, that neither the life of a sailor nor the boat to which he signed on are all he expected them to be.

The Cruise of the Dazzler, originally published in 1902, was Jack London’s second novel. Though pure adventure fiction, the book is loosely based on London’s own adolescent experiences as an oyster pirate in San Francisco Bay. Joe Bronson and the ’Frisco Kid—one the novice, the other the precocious veteran—could both be seen as surrogates for the author himself at different stages in his seafaring youth. This novel is one of only a few works London wrote for a young audience, and among that small group of works it stands out as the best. In this novel, London really does a great job of capturing the thoughts, impressions, and emotions of a teenage boy. Through the perspective of Joe he brings to life all of youth’s restlessness, wanderlust, and longing for independence. Although written over a century ago, this book still holds some attraction for today’s adventurous young reader. Of course, it will have the strongest appeal for kids who possess any interest in sailing or a love of boats. There are only a few brief passages in this book where the sailing jargon is thick enough to cause disorientation to the land dweller, unlike London’s other sailing book for boys, The Tales of the Fish Patrol, a collection of short stories in which every tale revolves around some fancy feat of nautical maneuvering. The Cruise of the Dazzler is less concerned with the technical craft of sailing, and more about the relationships between the characters and Joe’s coming of age. Though Joe gets into some dangerous adventures you wouldn’t want your kids to try, the overall message is a positive one, stressing that a happy and healthy life is one that strikes a balance between independence and security, you can’t run away from your problems, and the water is not always bluer on the other side of the bay.

Adult fans of London’s fiction will probably enjoy the book even more than their kids. Besides offering a semi-autobiographical glimpse into London’s oyster pirate days, it’s just simply a well-crafted and entertaining story. The fact that it was written for a young audience doesn’t make London’s depictions of San Francisco or the sea any less vivid. Though at times it may be a little predictable to the adult reader, it still manages quite a few memorable moments of surprise and suspense. Within London’s body of work, The Cruise of the Dazzler is not one of his greatest, most important books, but it’s an engaging and enjoyable read that, for a moment, just might make you feel young again.

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