ARCHIVE: Ripping Yarns on River Road

Matinee on the Bounty: Author William H. White of Rumson reads from and signs copies of WHEN FORTUNE FROWNS, his latest historical maritime adventure, in a special Saturday afternoon appearance at River Road Books.

Med_William_H._White1(First published on Red Bank oRBit June 15, 2009)

One of the things we appreciate about River Road Books is the whole “adventure of reading” thing — the shop’s quartet of owners (Sharon EverettLaurie PotterKim Robinson and Karen Rumage) could probably tell you a thing or two about the adventure of retailing as well, but the bottom line is that nobody would start something as iffy as an independent neighborhood bookstore if there weren’t some deep and abiding affinity for books, the people who read them and the folks who write them.

As evidenced by some of the writers who’ve made personal appearances at River Road, adventures can derive from just about any starting point — a pro football gamea royal wedding, and, as Benjamin Wallace so artfully demonstrated a few weeks back, the rarefied world of wine auctions.

On Saturday, June 20, the store welcomes William H. White — Rumson resident, expert sailing vessel skipper, retired naval officer and fervently followed author of In Pursuit of GloryThe Greater the Honor and other ripping adventure yarns — a series of historical adventures, scrupulously based on maritime lore and military history.

Between 1pm and 3pm, White will be signing copies of his most recent novel, When Fortune Frowns, a story drawn from the most endlessly fascinating seafaring saga in world history — the infamous Mutiny on the HMS Bounty, and its incredible aftermath. This isn’t the melodramatic story of old Hollywood screenplays, but a vivid (some argue, still ongoing) epic of colonial-era culture clashes, high-seas heroism, and the sparks that fly when proper procedure meets illogical passion. Red Bank oRBit spoke to the author for a bit of background on Cap’n Bligh and Mr. Christian; an opinionated overview of sailing the Two Rivers, and a tantalizing hint about his next project. Read on.

RED BANK ORBIT: This is just an endlessly fascinating tale, isn’t it? Most of us know the whole saga of Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian from the movies, and of course that’s just about one third of the story. But it continues to have a hold on people’s imagination, even if, as you’ve said, a lot of what’s accepted as fact is total fiction…

WILLIAM H. WHITE: One of the things that’s really cool about this story, which is so familiar from old movies, is you could ask anyone what became of Fletcher Christian and the mutineers after they seized control of the ship, and they’ll tell you that they went to Pitcairn Island. Well, that’s not what happened — and when I stumbled across the story, I couldn’t believe that nobody had ever written it. I leapt into the breach, to tell this really neat story.

So what did happen to the crew of the Bounty? I read an article on Pitcairn recently, about some pretty seedy behavior going on down there, and to this day there are still a whole lot of people there named Christian…

In reality, only nine of the crew went to Pitcairn. Ten or twelve years later, an American whaleship captain showed up there and found only one of the mutineers left alive among the women and children. He was kind of bonkers by that point.

The remainder of the mutineers stayed in Tahiti, to set up housekeeping arrangements with the indigenous ladies, so to speak — and of course they had no idea Christian and his men went to Pitcairn. Well, the Royal Navy wasn’t about to let that stand, so they sent a ship, the HMS Pandora, commanded by Captain Edward Edwards, and rounded them up.

There were only 14 of them alive by the time the ship got there; they threw ‘em on board in the most horrendous, inhuman conditions, and went out onto the seas searching for Fletcher Christian and his crew — who, obviously, they didn’t find — and they had the misfortune to get wrecked. Captain Edwards and the survivors did an open boat journey, similar to what Bligh and his men had done, and ultimately made it back to England, by way of Cape Town.

Whereupon… what?

Whereupon Edwards stood court martial, because he had lost the ship. Bligh, of course, had also stood court martial upon his return to England. In fact, Bligh had returned to Tahiti by that point to continue what he had set out to do with the Bounty, so he wasn’t there to defend his own reputation against what the surviving mutineers were saying about him. And of course, his reputation to this day, as a bully, a bad guy, came from those court proceedings.

So Captain Bligh was not the ogre he’s been made out to be?

In reality he was not — but Edward Edwards was exactly that, in spades!

What are some common misconceptions about Mister Christian? He didn’t look like Clark Gable or Mel Gibson?

Christian was not, as people commonly believe by watching Marlon Brando or Clark Gable, a ship’s officer. He was actually Bligh’s protege; Bligh named him as a master’s mate. People ask me all the time, if Bligh wasn’t such an inhuman dictator, why did Christian mutiny? My one word answer is that he was horny! He wanted to go back to Tahiti to live with the locals. In fact, he was planning to slip away on a little raft, and the whole mutiny was just an impulsive thing that he seized upon when he saw the ship’s watch sleeping at his post.

So there’s been quite a lot of fiction mixed into this old story from the start.

The ironies of this whole tale are phenomenal. Do you remember what the whole purpose of the Bounty’s voyage was in the first place? They were going to bring breadfruit trees from the South Seas to Jamaica, to use as food for the slaves. Bligh was sent back to Tahiti with two properly outfitted ships, he got the breadfruit over to Jamaica — and the slaves wouldn’t touch them. The trees still grow in the Caribbean; I live on Grand Cayman during the winter months and I’ve seen them.

Have you ever sampled a breadfruit?  Somehow it never quite caught on with the Food Network crowd.

Well, it’s an incredibly healthy food, but — an acquired taste. Aficionados say that you can fry it up and it tastes better than french fried potatoes, but it’s not something that I would go out of my way for.

In your novel WHEN FORTUNE FROWNS you’ve got the fictional character Lieutenant Ballantyne in the middle of this scrupulously researched, fact-based tale. Was the idea that he would be a sort of Mister Christian to the Bligh figure of Captain Edwards?

On the contrary — negative! Absolutely not. He’s there as a narrator. People are more likely to swallow history if it reads as an adventure — so with a narrator there in the story, I can put in dialogue, which I can’t do if I’m writing straightforward nonfiction.

I’m struck by the lengths you go to research the details of your stories — you’re no armchair traveler, to say the least. If you need to conjure an impression of a certain smell, you’ll sail off to wherever that smell is found, so you can express it in words…

I cannot write about something that I haven’t seen or experienced. Ninety-five percent of my research comes from contemporaneous texts — I went to England to read the log book of the Pandora. The ship’s surgeon wrote and published a journal; one of the mutineers wrote his own journal. I even went to Australia to see some of the recovered artifacts from the wreck. I would have gone diving down there if they allowed it.

What’s next for you? Any new books in the pipeline?

I’m working on one as I speak; co-writing it with my son, Joshua White, who teaches American history and government in Maryland. It’s about the Somali pirates!

Wow — that’s actually ripped screaming from today’s headlines. Quite a departure for this writer of historical dramas.

Oh, it’s a hell of a story. A pure novel, a la Clive Cussler, but one in which there’s something of the Maersk Alabama incident, where the Navy’s going to be the hero.

I consider it to be a bit of a palate cleanser; a change of pace. People who bought and read my stories expected me to work within that historic period, and for six books I gave it to them.

I imagine you get in a little time out on the water whenever you’re home in New Jersey. Where do you take your boat out?  And do you ever go motorboating?

No; no, I sail! I’ve been sailing for 61 years. I keep my boat in Rumson; I’m a day-sailer on local waters. I tend to do most of my sailing during the week, most of it in the South river — the Shrewsbury, in case you don’t know. It’s more satisfying than dealing with the Navesink, where everybody’s always on their way to somewhere. Basically just going to the Oceanic Bridge and back; looking at the fancy houses.

In the Shrewsbury, you can stick to the channel, which is kind of boring, but part of the joy of the Shrewsbury is that the waters are shallower; it keeps a few of the idiots away. It’s interesting to play a boat on — there’s a gazillion creeks; you’ve got Pleasure Bay, Blackberry Bay…

And in the Navesink you’ve got dolphin pods.

Dolphins! Everybody’s got to chase after the dolphins. Unfortunately there are a lot of (expletive deleted) out there on the water; our wonderful state licensing efforts are geared toward SkiDoos — you can just put money down on a boat and you don’t have to know a thing about navigation.

Well, this landlubber is happy to leave the skippering to you, rather than have to dodge the personal-watercraft set.

When I get too old to sail a boat, I’ll quit. Maybe have somebody else take me out on the water for a change. But I’m not ready to quit yet. Same with the books — I think I’ve got a few more stories in me.