on June 21, 2014
Farley Mowat is a household name even to me, with only an inkling of a captain and whales. Most reviews have been comparative commentaries and expectations of his reputation. My feedback is independent. "The Black Joke" is my introduction to Farley. Without any penchant for marine tales, I loved it. I had acquired two books and upon his very recent passing, felt it was time to dip a toe into the waters of his work.
Central Canadians are far removed from Newfoundland. A seafaring life itself, to us, is surrealistic. Both offered culturally-enriching reasons to try this novel. I truly don't know if environmental details are factual or fictional. The story is that a man fell in love with a hidden inlet in 1735 and sparked a community. Jonathan Spence was English, forced into service with the `Black Joke'. He was free to quit and keen to emigrate but settlers were unwelcome in eastern waters. However when his captain fled French squadrons by entering a crevice, he saw that the treacherous-looking south was untouched. Better still, `Hole Island' was invisible from the outside and protected from storms. It would be isolated without couriering by boat but idyllic. We meet a Jonathan Spence descendent in 1935, the latest christener of a `Black Joke' craft. The crucial protagonists are his son, Peter and Kye, a brother's son whom he is raising.
When you're through political orientation of the region, the pace becomes riveting. These were peculiar environs: some islands were French and all of them, traversed by liquor-bootlegging Americans. Hole Island's greedy store merchant had a dire economic hold and `Black Joke' was the last craft for him to seize. He dangles a job and frames Jonathan with `St. Pierre' laws. Fourteen year-old Peter & Kye face long-distance peril without their parent.
on April 15, 2000
I think what I like best about "The Black Joke," is that it introduces the reader to a little known corner of North America: Newfoundland and St-Pierre and Miquelon. The other thing I like about it is that it proves that Farley Mowat can write just about anything he sets his mind to.
With an historical background that is not negligible (nor does it matter much to the actual plot), the book Mowat has set out to write is ostensibly for children. It follows a classic "Boys Own" formula of putting the action safely into the hands of a pair of enterprising youngsters who then have to deal as well as they can with the baddies. It is really an excellent story of the sea; readers of maritime literature will love the boat that lends its name to the book, and bewail its apparent fate near the end. I suppose children will also like this book, although it seems so old-fashioned in many ways. Nevertheless, if you can convince a 12-year-old to have a look at it, you may make another convert, both to Mowat and the art of reading. Just don't forget to read it yourself!
Mowat seems to have tried an experiment with this book and I am confounded a bit to know why he didn't try and take it a bit further with other volumes. He had already written one of his Arctic stories for children, "Lost in the Barrens," by the time he wrote this one, and he subsequently wrote a sequel to it. But "The Black Joke" has to stand alone and I suppose all one can say is that, based on his output since its 1962 publication, it has nothing to do with fearing the hard work of writing. Excellent and underrated book.
on July 4, 2008
As usual, Farley does an excellent job on this book for kids. It is full of thrills and suspense and is even great for adults wanting to learn Newfie 'english, idioms and pronounciation. Unfortunately the Newfie speak is slowly disappearing but a lot of the accent is still there.
Not only is this adventure story exciting but you also learn a lot about the geography of our tenth province and the French Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon which during the prohibition days were very much involved with the whiskey trade to the New England coastal States.
A good book for younger ones to get their teeth into.
on July 11, 2000
The style of this novel has not aged well. Written in the bad old days of sex role stereotypes and thoughtless use of insensitive racial epithets (in this case "Frenchies"), I almost put this book down after a few chapters. (The book does treat the French with affection, however.) But I continued reading and it turned into a gripping boys' adventure tale, and provided a glimpse of that bizarre phenomenon, a tiny piece of France on the eastern North American coast (the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland), and an interesting piece of history, these islands' participation in prohibition-era rum-running to the U.S. But the characters are all stock, which, I guess, is only to be expected in a boys' novel of this era, especially the two peripheral female characters. Farley Mowat is for me one of the best writers of our time, as he is not afraid to call a spade a spade when it comes to telling the truth about what is happening and has happened to northern North America in the 20th century, the unbelievable cruelty and and rape of nature and indigenous peoples. This boys' adventure story though is both interesting and irritating.