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Posted July 2, 2010
The mermaid prints caught my eye and led me to the book, which I'm glad I bought. I went through the 245 pages in less than a few days because it offered me what I wanted around New Year's, a tall tale. And with the companion Sea Maiden art, Kline gives a new sense to what's today called the graphic novel.
One of the fascinating currents in the novel is the dialogue between an ancient sailor and the adventuresome, aristocratic naturalist, so I could lengthen the title even more to "or how Sir Edmund, not a sailor but yet a good sort for a gentleman, gets an education albeit reluctantly from an old, grizzled, besotted salt called `Gnarly Dan.'" Of course, Sir Edmund had schooling in the arts of painting, sciences, and artillery; Gnarly Dan just complemented that with observations from those watery areas where Sir Edmund was ignorant. An even longer sub-sub title appears on page 10, but you might search that out yourself.
In the first chapter (called "Sighting One," since the novel is divided into 57 sightings of sea folk), Kline describes Dan as "good hearted and garrulous, filling all voids with words . . . crafted to disseminate his boundless knowledge of all things nautical real or imagined. He spoke at length and without pause of distant lands, whales, flying carpets, magnificent storms, strange peoples, and fantastic animals." He was so verbose that "[this] source of Sea Maiden lore [produced] more words than the average individual hears in ten lifetimes." Understand, though, only toward the end of the novel did Sir Edmund become receptive to Dan's wisdom; on one occasion early on, the aristocrat, burdened with all the class biases against a sailor's empirical knowledge, promised Dan that, "if you have the temerity to open your mouth one more time I shall kill you dead. Here. Now. Not once, but twice. And the second time will be more painful than the first." Silence ensued, for a few minutes.
More on the dialogues of Sir Edmund and Gnarly Dan later, but this tale is ambitious in its search for fun. Take the second word of the title: forgotten. In the world of the novel, this voyage is forgotten aka suppressed, redacted out of official history to avoid some national embarrassments such as the following: HMS Baci was previously known as . . . HMS Bounty. You're thinking . . . but Fletcher Christian and his mutineers burned Bounty after retreating to Pitcairn Island. Not true in Kline's novel . . . it's a cover story. Likewise, did you ever hear about the oldest US warship USS Constitution being hijacked and sailed by bloodthirsty pirate called Naughty Nat and his crew including the nefarious twins Naughty Natalie and Nasty Natalie? Again, that story was suppressed, redacted, and since then forgotten. On the circumnavigation chartered by Sir Edmund, Baci also crosses paths with a certain HMS Beagle engaged in some obscure scientific expedition of its own and an American vessel named Pequod, obsessed with its own commercial or otherwise quest.
Kline sprinkles an ever-so-subtle environmental subtext in relation to some lost sea babies led to their mothers by a sea turtle. Sea maidens leave a trail of bubbles for the babies to follow, we learn; each bubble contains a mother's sweet air, her unique breath, to lead the baby back home; however, the "river of whale blood and viscera" trailing a vessel like Pequod disrupts the bubble trail and babies get "as lost