Traveling across the prairie several years ago, friends and I pondered an abandoned farmhouse as an object lesson in the unfathomable hardiness of earlier generations. "Can you imagine settling out here?" I said. "The heat and dust and isolation." "Not only that," my friend responded, "but they didn't even have sunglasses."
I thought of this moment as I read "A Brave Vessel." The subtitle provides a succinct summary: "The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's 'The Tempest.'" Like Shakespeare before him, Hobson Woodward has mined the narrative of William Strachey, an aspiring poet (friend of John Donne and ancestor of Victorian critic Lytton Strachey) who had the amazing fortune, good and bad, to be on board the Sea Venture as it set forth for Jamestown.
The first two months of the voyage were about as serene as a two-month sail across the Atlantic in 1609 could be. Then, bad fortune struck in the form of a hurricane. While this "dreadful storm, and hideous" raged, "it pleased God to bring a greater affliction yet upon us": The ship took on water due to a large leak in the hold. "Sea-swallowed" by a rogue wave, it took on even more water and began to list. Then fortune turned. Land was sighted; the ship steered into the shallows blind and became wedged between two massive rocks, which held it upright. By sheer luck or Providence, the Sea Venture had come in at the only place on the entire coast of Bermuda that was deep enough to allow a ship so large to approach so near.
As in "The Tempest," this is only the beginning of the story. The profoundly hardy castaways built a thriving community in Bermuda (hospitable despite its reputation as a bewitched place, the Devil's Isles), staying for almost a year before setting sail for Jamestown, where conditions were so dire that the hurricane seemed rather preferable. Through it all, Strachey kept scribbling, hoping to attract a prominent patron.
Woodward excels at using his source materials to produce a richly textured adventure story in the service of a literary point: the parallels, linguistic and narrative, between Strachey's chronicles and "The Tempest." As the action progresses, Woodward drops tantalizing bits of literary influence. (Was Ariel inspired by Strachey's description of St. Elmo's fire? I'm convinced.) All these bits and pieces come together at the end, as Woodward imagines Strachey in the audience at "The Tempest," watching a play that seemed "strangely familiar yet incredibly distant," an apt description of the inexplicable relationship between text and pre-text.
If you're interested in Jamestown, shipwrecks or Shakespeare, you'll want to throw this book into your beach bag, although it might not be the ideal book for a cruise. Then again, why not? Live dangerously. You have sunglasses.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.