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Henderson's Spear.

Henderson's Spear

Ronald Wright

Alfred A. Knopf

Canada, Toronto

ISBN 0676973892, Can $34.95 405 pages

Note: At the instant of writing, the Canadian dollar's value has risen 18 or 20 U.S. cents since the year of this book's publication.

Wright's fairly recent work (he is credited with several earlier volumes, and has published at least one more* since "Henderson's Spear") is based on elements of his family's history, and a fascinating family it must have been.

Is "Spear" a Literary work? A small-c conservative view--as typified in a facile Lit. publishers' rule of thumb, "no genre fiction"--suggests that Wright's work is non-Literary, for it is easily fitted to the genre, "quest-type adventure". "No genre fiction" is simpleminded, though, and a more liberal, not to say rational, view would be quite different.

At all events, this fine work is no penny dreadful. Nor does "mystery" belong in the genre-description of this work, although certain family and other secrets remain intriguing mysteries until the last chapter. For instance, from first to last we wonder why page 1 is datelined, "Women's Prison, Arue. April, 1990" (and no, I don't think I should betray that secret here.) This simply isn't a whodunit ... although it does ask WHY?

Some of the compounded story is set in times since the Korean War, but the parts built around title character Henderson, he of the Spear, hark back to the perhaps the second half of the Victorian era (in all, 1837-1901).

It's a work having a rather complex structure, then, and quite early in its reading I decided it does "Hamlet" one better by nesting a story within a story, within a story. That was however a merely temporary thought which doesn't do "Spear" (not to say "Hamlet") adequate justice.

In it, a still fairly young woman tells, from prison, her life story to her estranged daughter. She includes an explanation of how she had been conceived after her own mother's Royal Air Force pilot husband had been lost--had disappeared without a trace, in fact--during the Korean war.

Much later the reader eventually learns a quite different truth about the father's identity, but I'll go along with Wright's attempts at keeping many details secret.

Alternating by chapters with the foregoing, there also is a third story of Henderson, a British army officer who had lost an eye but gained a very special spear, an African assegai, in the course of dealing with assorted renegades and the like in the "Dark Continent", during the days of Empire.

... Except that the spear turns out to have been misrepresented by the youngish woman's mother. It's no assegai, or even from Africa, but rather from a tropical Pacific island. Here, though, it again seems best to replace the veil of secrecy over the matter and preserve the mystery author Wright has so carefully fashioned, noting that for the mother had important secrets to protect, e.g., relating to the legitimacy of her husband's odd disappearance.

A would-be reader, having sufficient patience and curiosity, is well advised to undertake a novel of this quality, certainly--but to do so with enough time foreseeably in hand to keep the story line freshly in mind; for the work is complicated enough without extraneous distractions breaking in upon one.

The locus of various chapters tends to wander, or to alternate, between England, West Africa, the South Seas including that women's prison in Tahiti, briefly South Africa, and Canada. (Wright himself lives in Canada, although he's not explicitly identified in the author blurb as Canadian.)

In the voice of the title character Henderson--Wright uses several first-person voices, making assignment of the word "protagonist" an uncertain task--a somewhat protracted African adventure is followed in the book by what actually had been an earlier and longer adventure, a royal cruise aboard a hybrid-powered (sail and steam) Royal Navy warship, the HMS "Bacchante".

Wright doesn't seem to be a sailor, for both in the "Bacchante" and, later on, in a nameless but also hermaphroditic three-masted schooner yacht, steam is the power of choice--although the problem of coaling and of loading (fresh) water for such service never seems to arise. This is the one area in which Wright's research and thoughtfulness seem less than prodigious.

The book thus is not to be mistaken for one of "my" beloved naval historical novels. Encountering something akin to a naval historical fiction within a novel of mixed genres is simply serendipitous. What absorbs probably far more pages is the weaving and ultimate unravelling of family secrets, generally done dryshod and ashore.

Although we may be deeply absorbed it the telling of Henderson's African adventure while it lasts, in the end it proves little more than a red herring, with little bearing upon the principal tale being spun. Not, though, that I suggest giving the African parts a miss; they could have made a highly readable novella in their own right.

To illustrate why I consider the word Literature appropriate to the quality of "Henderson's Spear", let me quote the following excerpt, nearly all from page 149 in Chapter 6, as indicative of Wright's style:

[After a long spell of drifting in Atlantic doldrums near the Equator,] "Captain Scott ordered fires lit, and we steamed at half speed, the stiff new engines sending pulses of vibration through 'Bacchante's frame. Every glass and metal object rattled, my outline in the shaving mirror was blurry as a ghost, and there was a leaden smell of baking paint from funnels and steampipes.

"This was my first crossing of an ocean, an immensity that cannot be grasped in abstract. In quiet moments I stood often at the taffrail and gazed, as into a cold fire, at the churned glass flowing from the stern day upon day for weeks, reflecting there upon the great size of the world and the smallness, brevity and loneliness of our place in it.

"Landfall at Barbados ... could hardly have brought a greater contrast ... Swarms of shoreboats, filled with laughing washerwomen, descended on us in a loud flotilla. On still nights, the rhythmic gruntle and squeak of frogs carried across the water. And when we went ashore, even [lethargic Prince] Eddy was intrigued by the hummingbirds--little flashes of crimson and emerald darting in the sun like fairy arrows."

Of course there's more, but as may be seen in these snippets, Wright's observations, imagery, and use of words can be spellbinding.

Perhaps the last quarter or so of the work is set amongst the Pacific isles of Polynesia, either with Henderson in the "Bacchante" which bore two grandsons of Queen Victoria on a peacetime cruise, or with the youngish woman of the piece, usually steaming about in civilian boats.

Even in those sequences, much of the action occurs ashore.

A question of historicity arises here. Wright calls the two young princes Edward (or Eddy) and George. The younger lad, George, was an historical personage who would become King George V. However, Wright's "Prince Eddy" is fictitious, a weak and despicable character evidently invented to avoid directly maligning George's real elder brother, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence. (The boys' father would become King Edward VII, but Wright's fictitious Prince Eddy dies before ascending the throne.)

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1957 ed.) tells that part of Wright's (and Henderson's) tale this way: "On Jan. 14, 1892, however, a heavy blow fell upon [future Edward VII] and his house by the death of his eldest son Prince Albert Victor, ... after a brief illness. The young prince, who with his brother George had made a tour of the world in H.M.S. "Bacchante" and after a short career at Oxford and Cambridge was just settling down to play his part in public life, had recently become engaged to Princess Victoria Mary of Teck ..."

Thus the chief factors shared by Wright's imaginary Eddy and the historical Albert Victor seem to be their rich heritage, the "Bacchante" cruise, and their early deaths.

The farther one penetrates into this book, the more the episodes set in Africa, England, and elsewhere seem like diversions, although interesting enough in their own rights. The real story unfolds in mid-Pacific.

Here, especially, we see the importance of what I call "research travel" to the ability to write impeccable travel-adventure fiction. How else than by visiting Tahiti, for example, should one know or even imagine the presumably authentic detail that a residence address might state the kilometre number on the road encircling the island, as mentioned in Chapter Nine?

This book's pace is always leisurely, and occasionally it seems (to this slightly impatient reviewer) simply too long drawn out. The essence of Literature, though, is that the reader is presumed to have ample time to savour fine words and phrases; he or she no longer must figuratively rush to catch a train--but, having caught it, may now luxuriate in the parlour car, happily entertained by a really good book.

* Wright is introduced as "historian, novelist and essayist" in a Christine Sismondo review in "The Ottawa Citizen", Nov. 21, 2004.

The new work Sismondo discusses there is "A Short History of Progress" (House of Anansi Press, presumed 2004, 199 pp., Can.$18.95), in which Wright compares Earth as a whole to various fallen, or rather imploded, past civilizations. He suggests all Earth will be subject to the same fate as was, say, Rome, if we humans continue to rush blindly through our resources as if purposely trying to deplete and destroy them.

His is a compelling argument in light of the "conspicuous consumption" around us, as practised by those whom we may justly call "the unthinkers" permeating society.

Wright, says Sismondo, "... believes we are walking in the footsteps of the Sumerians, Romans and Mayans, defunct civilizations that were too successful for their own good."

"Consider the Easter Islanders," she summarizes. "... Rapa Nui [Easter Is.] was barren when discovered [by Dutch explorers].

"Wright's cautionary tale includes a terrifying detail: Easter Island is so small that one could have climbed to a good vantage point and discovered they were about to fell the very last tree ... And, he warns, we will soon be in the position to fell our last tree."

For this reason (or rather reasoning) alone, I should call Wright's new work "vital reading". No comparable lesson is to be learned from "Henderson's Spear", though. The latter is simply a fine piece of writing.
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Author:Hodgins, Pete, Sr.
Publication:Reviewer's Bookwatch
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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