David Grann is one of my favorite authors, and his Killers of the Flower Moon is one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books. Since I have an interest in maritime history, I knew I had to read The Wager, which describes one of the longest castaway voyages ever recorded.
Grann set the stage so well that readers feel as though they're on board ship with the officers and crew. This was the time of press gangs when the British Navy had so much trouble finding enough sailors to man their ships that they'd send groups of men to roam the streets outside pubs at night to kidnap men and force them aboard ships for duty that could last years. This meant that not all the men on the Wager wanted to be there. As the voyage progressed, scurvy set in, and as men began to die, the Wager found itself with a new captain named Cheap, a man who would be called "Jobsworth" by the British (as in it was more than Cheap's job was worth to go against his orders). Cheap's bungling and indecision were instrumental in the Wager's unsuccessful attempt to round Cape Horn, ending with the ship being wrecked and the survivors being castaways on a desolate island in Patagonia. This isn't the first book I've read about the land, the seas, and the weather of the Tierra del Fuego, but Grann wrote of it so well that I felt seasick, wet, and frozen solid as I turned the pages. The months the castaways spent on that island, trying to survive and trying to escape, were brutal.
Grann immersed me in these men's lives-- one of whom would be the grandfather of the poet, Lord Byron. (Yes, Byron's experiences were important in light of one of his descendants, but the crew member who had the most impact on me was the free Black man on the Wager, John Duck.) Grann also reminded me of the integral part sailors played in the history of our clothing and our language. However, the one thing that I enjoyed the most was how he exposed what was really going on and how the Wager's original assignment and the proceedings of the court martial at the end actually fit into the much larger world stage.
Any reader with an interest in ships, the sea, human nature, and government machinations should read The Wager.
(Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Net Galley)