The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes

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The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes (originally published 1923) features pirate action as well as a slightly multifaceted adversary in the pirate leader Tom Jordon, with much the same attitude I found in Treasure Island, but a passionless main character and a series of bloody battles gave the overall book a jolt of boring reality that just didn’t appeal to me. The Dark Frigate was the Newbery Medal winner in 1924 and was the only named book on the list for that year (no runner ups).

Philip Marsham was raised at sea with his sailor father, but now his father is presumed lost at sea. As a young man, Phil is capable, although without any funds, and he finds he must now flee for his life from the inn. It is only natural that he would again turn to the sailor’s profession now, for what else would he do?

After a lengthy walk to the port of Bideford with chance meeting of important people (see below), Phil’s sea adventures begin on the pleasant sounding Rose of Devon, led by the kindly Captain Candle. But even in port, he describes the vessel as a “darka frigate,” thus foreshadowing the eventual fate of the ship and his story. In Treasure Island, young Jim Hawkins had adult guides that helped him and fought with him. Captain Candle would have been a nice such companion for Phil, but he is killed pretty quickly after the pirates (who originally appear to be shipwrecked sailors) board the ship. Will Canty is another pleasant young man, obviously on Phil’s side against the pirates, but he too meets a similar fate. Eventually Phil has a difficult return to England given his association with pirates, but again there are few others on his side.

First edition frontispiece
Second edition cover

It’s good he had those chance meetings before he sailed, then! In true Dickensian coincidence, a few times Phil meets the same influential people throughout the book. Of course, first he encounters the soon-to-be pirate on the road. He sees his estranged grandfather in an inn, though he is too reserved to approach him. And, meeting a powerful landowner who takes a liking to him was also a nice chance of luck. But the eye-rolling coincidences would be forgiven quickly if Phil had any personality. Even as he meets people, and even as his captain is slaughtered in front of him (for example), Phil’s first person narration just falls flat. There is no abundance of emotions to share just how he really feels. Yes, his internal thoughts express concern for his new position as a boatswain to pirates. But I found little connection to him as he goes through the motions along with the other pirates, raiding villages in the Caribbean and watching his loyal friend Will Canty die.

Although this book was not offensive and dated as much as was Hawes’ honor book written two years previously (don’t bother reading it — I already reviewed it for you), The Dark Frigate still lacked something to make it a highly recommendable book. It is another disappointing early Newbery Medal winner.

I rate The Dark Frigate, Newbery Medal winner from 1922, as “okay” and say “don’t bother.”



Reviewed on January 9, 2024

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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