The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
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Cover for the novel
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The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a historical fiction novel by the American author Avi published in 1990. It takes place during the crossing of a ship from England to America in 1832. The book chronicles the evolution of the title character as she is pushed outside her naive existence and learns about life aboard a ship. The novel was well received and won several awards, including being named as a Newbery Honor book.
The story starts in the early summer of 1832, as thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle prepares to take a big voyage from Liverpool, England to her family's new home in Providence, Rhode Island. Her upper class upbringing and her education in the very proper Barrington School for Better Girls gives her a very sheltered and narrow view of life. Charlotte finds herself the only passenger and the only female on the ship, the Seahawk, as the other two families coming with her don't arrive . Repeatedly, people tell her she shouldn't be on the ship, but her escort, Mr. Grummage, insists. Mr. Grummage rushes her, saying that her father wants her on the Seahawk.
On her first day aboard, a black sailor named Zachariah gives her a dirk for protection. He also tells Charlotte a story about what Captain Jaggery did to a crewman's arm after he couldn't tie a good knot. Blinded by her view of the captain as a gentleman, she disbelieves him. The captain and Charlotte become very close, and he says that if she ever sees anything suspicious, she must tell him.
One day she is with one of the sailors, when his needle snaps. Charlotte offers to get a new one for him from the forecastle, where the crew sleeps. While looking for the needle, she sees a pistol in the trunk, and a round robin on the table. After contemplating whether or not to tell the captain, Charlotte's fear drives her to inform him. Captain Jaggery heads off the rebellion, shooting the stowaway Mr. Cranick, who held a grudge against the captain for lashing his arm so much it had to be amputated. Charlotte is distressed as Captain Jaggery and 2nd mate Mr. Hollybrass whipped Zachariah (one sailor that Charlotte has very strong feelings for) 50 lashes. Charlotte tries to protect Zachariah by grabbing the whip, but accidentally hits the captain's face. Jaggery is enraged and whips Zachariah mercilessly, leading to his death and funeral.
After the captain has withdrawn his protection of Charlotte, she feels compelled to replace Zachariah as a crew member, as she feels guilt for her naive part in revealing the crew's plans. The crew allows her to join them after she successfully climbs up and down the tallest mast, the royal yard, on the ship. To climb the ship, she must either use the ratlines or shimmy up the mainmast itself. She chooses the ratlines. While climbing down, she gets tangled and almost falls to her death, but she gets herself untangled and makes it safely down. When she comes down, however, the captain is there, and Charlotte tells him she is joining the crew. Annoyed by her change of heart, he dubs her "Mister Doyle" and moves her things from her cabin to the forecastle. Captain Jaggery strikes Charlotte across the face, and she vows to reveal his cruelty to the courts after they complete their voyage and insists that her reasons are justified.
As the Seahawk enters a powerful hurricane, Charlotte falls from the ratlines and is saved by a man whom she believes is Zachariah, despite his apparent death. As she climbs back down, the crew finds the body of the first mate, Mr. Hollybrass, stabbed in the back, by the dirk Zachariah gave her. She is ordered to the brig, where she finds Zachariah, who has been hiding there since he was thrashed nearly to death. Captain Jaggery holds a trial and conveniently finds her guilty of Mr. Hollybrass' murder after accusing Charlotte of being unnatural in many aspects of her life, and comparing this to the unnatural murder of Hollybrass. Captain Jaggery tells Charlotte that he won't be the jury; instead the crew will be the jury. As Charlotte has vowed to expose his cruelty when they land, he threatens to hang her unless she will align herself with him and become a respectable young woman again.
She finds out that Zachariah is actually alive and has been living in the jail of the Seahawk with the help of another sailor, Keetch, who supplies him with food. With Zachariah's help, she escapes the prison and plans to steal the captain's guns and usurp his title. Instead, she finds the captain waiting for her. The Captain says that he has been waiting for her all along. Keetch had told him everything. Jaggery reveals that he himself had killed Hollybrass, but claims that he had been threatened and had no choice but to murder him. Not wanting to lose his title, he blames the death on Charlotte. He tells her she has three choices. She can 1) take the muskets and disrespect her family and herself by killing Captain Jaggery, 2) put on her proper clothing and wait at the docks like a proper lady, forgetting all about the fights, and begging him for mercy in front of the crew, or 3) consent to be hanged. She refuses to take any of the choices, and flees the cabin. Jaggery attempts to kill her in front of the crew, but falls off the ship's bowsprit to his death while chasing Charlotte, despite Charlotte's awkward attempt to save him. Zachariah tells the crew that a new captain must be named, and that it should be Charlotte, because she has done what they could not. She is elected by the crew, but serves primarily as a figurehead due to her lack of experience. Zachariah openly exercises the powers of the captain, after she insists on it. They land in Providence, Rhode Island, 12 hours later.
When the Seahawk arrives in Rhode Island, Charlotte returns to her old "proper" behavior and dress. She intends to hide what happened from her family, but her father reads her journal of the voyage. He is appalled by what he sees as "lies" and defamation of Captain Jaggery. He burns the diary and tells Charlotte that she will be punished and reformed. Charlotte finally decides to escape from her home one night, and returns to the Seahawk to be a sailor with Zachariah and the crew.
- Charlotte Doyle – Charlotte is the thirteen-year-old upper-class girl with a proper education and proper manners. As such, she has grown accustomed to a refined style of living. Sheltered from the harsher sides of life, she has a narrow-minded view of things and places great value in propriety. She is returning to her family from a private girls' school in England. In the end, she decides to run away from home and become a true sailor, even though she is inexperienced.
- Captain Jaggery – Captain Jaggery at first appears to Charlotte, the narrator, as a true gentleman, stylishly dressed and possessing elegant manners. He seems to be a man who she can trust and depend upon, even though he warns her that he will, at times, be compelled to treat the crew harshly. He later reveals himself as cruel and petty. He loses his temper easily and flies into violent rages. It turns out that he was charming to Charlotte only to make use of her, and is willing to kill anyone, such as Hollybrass, who threatens his position as captain.
- Zachariah – Zachariah is the ship's cook who is cast in the role of the noble character. Early on, he offers Charlotte his friendship as well as a small knife for her protection. He cares for Charlotte during her first days of seasickness, and seems to be respected by the crew, although he is at times the butt of their jokes because he is the only black person on board. He tells Charlotte that he left his home in Africa as a teenager, and had been a sailor ever since. He has never lived in America and has never been a slave. At the end of the book, it becomes clear that he does not realize what his social status would be, even as a free man in Providence, Rhode Island.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle received a positive critical reaction when it was published. In its starred review of the book, Kirkus Reviews called it "tautly plotted, vividly narrated, carefully researched: a thrilling tale deepened by its sober look at attitudes that may have been more exaggerated in the past but that still persist". The Five Owls review journal noted the "innovative mixture of history and fiction" and said the book was "expertly crafted and consistently involving, it is sure to excite, enthrall, and challenge readers." Horn Book, giving it its highest rating of outstanding, said the book was "a rousing adventure story". Booklist contended it was not just an adventure story, saying the dynamic between Charlotte and Zachariah "allows the story to rise above swashbuckling adventure, though that element is there too. From its riveting opening line...to its surprise ending, this is a story harder to forget." The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle has been listed in several books as a best book or core collection book for children.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle was a Newbery Honor Book in 1991. A member of the Newbery committee that year felt the book deserved to win the Newbery Medal and described the book as being about "a spunky young lady goes from polite idealist impressed by good manners and gallantry to a realistic young woman who comes to terms with the complexity of the 19th-century society in which she lives". It won several other critical awards including the Golden Kite Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and the Judy Lopez Award. The book also appeared on several notable or best-of book lists, including the ALA's Notable Children's Book, ALA's Best Book for Young Adults, and School Library Journal's Books That Shaped a Century. The book was not only popular with adult critics, but also children, winning several children's choice awards including the Evergreen Award, Massachusetts Children's Book Award, the Sunshine State Young Readers Award, and the Beehive Award.
A film adaptation of the book was in development. It was written and would have been directed by Danny DeVito, starring Morgan Freeman as Zachariah and Pierce Brosnan as Jaggery. Dakota Fanning was originally cast as Charlotte Doyle, but had to drop out as production was continually halted and she eventually grew too old for the part. Saoirse Ronan was later cast, but the film was again halted because Freeman was seriously injured in a car accident two weeks before filming was scheduled to commence. DeVito returned to the subject in February 2013, saying he was looking for another young actress to star in the title role and scouting movie locations in Ireland. Shooting was supposed to start in July 2014.
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