Book review: Sea captain rights wrongs in engaging ‘Devil in Paradise’
The story moves at the slow and steady speed of a sailing ship on an extended voyage and alternates between Clarity’s experiences with the missionaries and Putnam’s mission to the Pacific and East Asia.
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“The Devil in Paradise”
James L. Haley
The adventures of English author C.S. Forester’s fictional Royal Navy officer Horatio Hornblower have entertained fans of historical fiction ever since the first book in the series was published in 1937. American novelist James L. Haley provides readers with an American equivalent to Hornblower with the adventures of U.S. naval officer Bliven Putnam and his wife, Clarity. “The Devil in Paradise,” published in October, is the third book in a series but stands on its own as a complete story.
Captain Putnam is patrolling the Caribbean Sea in the sloop of war Rappahannock when a persistent leak in the ship’s hull forces him home for repairs. Next comes orders to take the Rappahannock to the Pacific Ocean where he is to “show the flag” while protecting American merchant ships from pirates. The mission will keep him away from home and family for three long years, and so his resourceful wife buys herself a place with the first company of Congregationalist missionaries to Hawaii.
The story moves at the slow and steady speed of a sailing ship on an extended voyage and alternates between Clarity’s experiences with the missionaries and Putnam’s mission to the Pacific and East Asia. Clarity discovers on arrival that the indigenous Hawaiian religion has been overthrown by Kaahumanu and other alii who saw a vested interest in doing so, but that the Hawaiians have not adopted Christian notions of monogamy and feminine body shame. Putnam oversees the fitting out of his ship, sails around the southern tip of South America and visits Clarity in Hawaii. He then crosses the Pacific to visit the newly established British outpost of Singapore, deal with pirates in the Straits of Malacca and pay a courtesy call on American merchants in Canton, China, where westerners are confined to a small enclave on the Pearl River.
Haley describes American shipbuilding techniques, naval procedures and the culture of early 19th century New England in such convincing detail that is easy to accept Kaahumanu, Keeaumoku, Boki and Lilliha speaking English in Hawaii (Isaac Davis and John Young became members of Kamehameha’s court in 1790, so there is no reason to assume that alii were not bilingual in 1820).
Haley shows Henry Opukahaia being the pioneer in creating a writing form of the Hawaiian language. He also lets the reader reach the conclusion that the missionaries were required to find wives before departing for Hawaii so they wouldn’t father children with Hawaiian women after they got there.
Readers familiar with Hawaiian history will recognize the act of war that provides a modicum of suspense in the final few chapters as mirroring crimes committed in Hawaii in 1790. Readers familiar with Hornblower’s adventures will note approvingly that Putnam shows similar resourcefulness in doing the right thing without violating the exact letter of his orders.
Hornblower served throughout the Napoleonic Wars and on into the 1820s; he was alive and well, a retired Admiral of the Fleet, in 1848. Bliven Putnam appears to be a few years younger than Hornblower; if so, his adventures could take him to Texas in 1836, Hong Kong in 1841, back to Hawaii in 1843, through the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and perhaps even service as an admiral in the first years of the Civil War. If so, it will be an engaging and richly detailed journey through American history.