Monday, June 11, 2012

Hangman's Beach

A young woman witnesses a British sailor being flogged around the fleet, an ordeal he does not survive. His body is put on display at "the Admiral's orchard," the gibbets on a strip of beach on the island where she lives. When she falls in love with a French prisoner-of-war, she has a premonition that he will suffer the same fate. There is good reason for her concern, for the sailor carries a secret that would surely cause him to be hanged.

The setting is Halifax early in the 19th century, when Britain was mired in the Napoleonic wars and on the verge of taking up arms against America. The first half of the book concerns itself with introducing characters, showing the effect of the war on Halifax, and describing the minutiae of daily life in a naval port: the wherries and curricles, shakos and tarpaulin hats, gunpowder mixed with wine, hornet-striped warships, dolly-shops and cod-hookers, and so on.

The characters and dialogue are engaging, and there are a couple of surprising twists in the plot. Best of all is Raddall's remarkable ability to breathe life into a scene. It is a testament to his skill that the languid pacing of the first half of the book in no way detracts from its enjoyment.

Historical events touched upon are:

-- the death of Nelson at Trafalgar
-- the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair
-- a visit to Halifax by Aaron Burr
-- American designs on Canada
-- the large number of French POWs in Halifax

A Few Good Quotes

a complexion of soiled wax
as full of talk as a parrot
hair like shredded carrots
a sunken dark eye gleaming like a candle in a pit

He plucked a dark bottle from an inner pocket, tipped his head back and tasted its contents with the deliberation of a sea officer taking a noon observation of the sun.

"Alors! That is the best way to invade the English. On the couch!"

He had a slow long-legged wary step, like a bittern stalking frogs in a swamp.

"Forever is a damn long time to be sucking the roots of a dandelion."

Then and Now

Hangman's Beach on McNab's Island in Halifax Harbour is now the site of a lighthouse rather than a gibbet, and the island itelf a provincial park. Melville Island, where the POWs were incarcerated, is now the site of a yacht club. Nearby Deadman's Island, where POWs were buried, is a civic historic park maintained by HRM. It bears an historic marker honouring the many Americans who died in captivity during the subsequent War of 1812.

Many of the fortifications mentioned in the book are still standing, though in various states. The Citadel in downtown Halifax and Fort Anne near Annapolis Royal on the Bay of Fundy are national historic sites. York Redoubt which protected the harbour entrance as late as WWII is also maintained by Parks Canada. The Split-Crow tavern is still serving customers.