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Book Report: A life at sea's the life for me -- but maybe not

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My grandmother used to amuse me telling stories about her father who left the farm in Sweden to become a merchant seaman, and eventually learned seven languages.

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Life was not easy for a farm boy at sea, my grandmother said.

As a cabin boy his pay was all the bread and water he could scarf down and a beating each day, "whether he deserved it or not."

She told about the time the first mate sent the second mate and Great-granddad up a high mast, with the orders to the young kid to "do everything the second mate does." Up on the mast, the wind whipping around, the second mate pulled Great-granddad's nose. So Great-granddad pulled back.

More whippings.

Great-granddad didn't know how to swim, so once at sea, the second mate just tossed him overboard and he learned. Years later, he jumped ship in New York harbor, made his way to Wisconsin for the relative ease of being a pioneer farmer.

I always thought Grandmother's tales were highly imaginative. That was so until I read "The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum," by Geoffrey Wolff (Alfred Knopf, $25.95).

Wolff is a fine biographer. Years back he wrote a book I loved called "The Duke of Deception," a tell-all narrative about his own father, a very accomplished con man.

His biography of John O'Hara has also received raves from the critics.

And so who was Joshua Slocum?

He was a Nova Scotia farm boy with a third grade education, who shipped out at 16 on a lumber freighter bound for Ireland. It was a tough life, but Slocum took to it. Unlike many of his colleagues, a rough and tumble bunch who were most interested in coming ashore to the saloons and brothels of world ports, Slocum learned his trade and became a first mate by age 19 and finally the master of his own ship when he was in his 20s.

He married, had children, took them along on his voyages, one of which ended in the tragedy that took his wife and two children.

Lots of his life ended in tragedies of varying degrees. But in 1895, he left his second wife at home and sailed a small sailing ship, "The Spray," around the world, alone, the first sailor to do so. Even then newspapers called him a liar, or a show-off.

Nevertheless he scratched out a living making speeches about his adventure and writing a famous book about it, "Sailing Alone Around the World."

His later years were scarred by accusations of a rape, of civil disturbance. These days, National Geographic Society places him in the exclusive Pantheon of adventurers, alongside Sir Galahad, Dr. David Livingstone and Charles Lindbergh.

George Plimpton has written that Slocum is one of the few people he'd like to resurrect so he could have dinner and conversation with him.

It's a riveting tale, made even more delicious by all the detail Wolff has dug up about the days of sailboats before ironclad steamers took over the seas, about the conditions suffered by ordinary seamen, the cruelty of captains, who amused themselves by shooting the grunts as they struggled before the mast. (Great-granddad, apparently, got lucky).

Wolff is also good with economic details. Shipmasters made fortunes on the backs of the ordinary seamen because the ships carried valuable cargoes. During the California Gold Rush, for instance, eggs sold in San Francisco for $10 per dozen.

Commenting on Slocum's downward slide because sailing ships became outmoded, Wolff waxes philosophical:

"...even if Slocum had been able to foresee the death of his chosen life at its commencement, what might he have done differently? Doesn't everyone know that in our beginning is our end? But 'so what' doesn't account for his plunge off the deep end. Almost any calling that might be considered -- poet or autoworker or jazz pianist -- seems from the perspective of common sense to be quixotic and probably doomed. Maybe it is enough to say, 'So what?'"

*****

Darby Creek, an imprint of Minneapolis's Lerner Publications, is out this month with an adolescent novel, "Benito Runs" ($7.95), by Maine author Justine Fontes. Written in the first person, the story has Benito talking about how life has been turned upside down at Southside High when his father Xavier returns after a year in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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