The ports of Liverpool and Providence are touched on at the beginning and end of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Neither city is described in detail, although the multitude of ships crowded together at Liverpool is vividly presented. Nearly all the novel's action take place on the Seahawk, a brig. Avi provides a diagram of the ship in an appendix to the novel, and this should help readers follow where the action takes place. Although Avi takes care to explain nautical terms as they come up in the narrative, the illustration of the ship clarifies where the different parts of the ship are to be found.
The Seahawk is a two-masted ship, with a main mast and a foremast. Each mast consists of tree trunks bound together; it takes three stages of trunks, one upon another, to stretch the masts to their full heights. In the course of the narrative, Charlotte will learn to scale these masts to their full extent, hundreds of feet above the ship's deck, and she will learn all of their rigging. The rest of the ship is divided into storage areas for cargo, work areas, and living quarters. Charlotte finds herself crammed into a room so small that she cannot stand up in it—even though she herself is small—and her cabin has no room for storing her clothes. Her cabin is near the captain's quarters, a large room with many comforts. The crew is quartered in the forecastle, near the bow of the ship; they are crammed together with little room...
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The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is told in the first person by the character Charlotte Doyle. The advantages of having her tell her own story include having a youthful voice speak to the novel's young audience and providing a sense of discovery as the plot advances. Charlotte is as unfamiliar with sailing ships as the novel's audience is likely to be, and this provides a good reason for her to explain the different parts of the ship as she encounters them. Thus, readers are kept in the light on the different aspects of the ship and shipboard life in a manner that seems natural and unobtrusive. On the other hand, the use of Charlotte as narrator mutes some of the novel's suspense. From the beginning, it is clear that Charlotte is looking back on events in her past. Therefore, when, for example, she is climbing to the main-royal yard and even slips and dangles upside down, there is no doubt about her survival. When she is threatened by hanging, the only suspense is in how she will survive, because her survival is a certainty.
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Avi's insistence on a modern feminist's point of view on the significance of the events on the Seahawk is jarringly anachronistic, although it probably accounts for much of the acclaim for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and for much of its appeal to young people, for whom the feminism is likely to be familiar. Charlotte Doyle is a repressed youngster, although she does not know it. Her education has been aimed primarily at her becoming a proper gentlewoman who knows all the graces that upper-class women are supposed to know. Most of her development in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle involves her trying to apply the rules for conduct that she has learned to a tense, eventually desperate, situation on the Seahawk. When she becomes convinced that she was at fault for the crew being short two men, although events eventually reveal that Captain Jaggery had been informed by Keetch of a brewing mutiny and that Charlotte's supposed revealing of the conspiracy was merely a smoke screen that protected Keetch from discovery by his crew mates, Charlotte chooses to take the place of a missing crew member and do the job of a sailor. To her way of thinking, this is the responsible action for her to take. It is when she undergoes her training that the feminist themes become clear, even heavy-handed. "I came to feel a sense of exhilaration in it [her new life] such as I had never felt before," she declares. In the hard work of being a sailor she discovers in herself strength, eventually feeling liberated from the social rules that govern how a woman is supposed to conduct herself.
In the latter part of the novel, Captain Jaggery and Charlotte's father become spokesmen for a patriarchal over-class that is determined to prevent women from having happy lives. In fact, Captain Jaggery's remarks reveal that keeping women in submissive roles is part of the over-class's effort to keep the lower classes in their places, calling it social order:
But you, Miss Doyle, you interfered...
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Topics for Discussion
1. When did you realize who the head in the hold had to be? What gave him away?
2. Why would Charlotte Doyle think the Seahawk was her home at the end of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle?
3. Did the appendix help you to understand what was happening on the Seahawk? Is there more information you would like to have?
4. Charlotte's father is an officer in the company that owns the Seahawk. How likely is she to escape him by joining the crew of the Seahawk?
5. Why would Charlotte believe that her father would understand what happened to her? Why does he not understand?
6. Charlotte is thirteen years old. Is that too young for someone to run off to become a sailor?
7. The crew of the Seahawk were willing to allow Charlotte to hang for a crime they believed someone else committed. Why would Charlotte forgive them? Why would she trust them enough to rejoin them at the end of the novel?
8. Was Charlotte's joining the crew the right thing to do? Should she have stayed in her cabin instead, or done something else?
9. Why does Charlotte not realize that Captain Jaggery is crazy earlier than she does?
10. What does Charlotte mean when she insists that her joining the crew of a ship is not "unnatural" but "unusual" instead?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What was the Atlantic sea trade like in 1832? What sort of goods were transported? Why would it take two months for a ship like the Seahawk to sail from England to America?
2. The Seahawk is a brig. What were brigs used for in 1832? Where were they built? Who built them?
3. How were crews hired in England or America in 1832?
4. How many female sailors were there in the Atlantic in the 1830s? What were they like?
5. Charlotte spends much time learning how to handle the rigging on the Seahawk. Describe the ropes and the sails and explain the purpose of each.
6. What were the laws governing the conduct of captain and crew on a merchant ship in the 1830s? Did captains have as much power as Jaggery claims?
7. What sort of future can Charlotte look forward to, assuming she is not returned to her family? What would her pay be? What opportunities for advancement would she have? Would she be able to have a family?
8. If Charlotte stayed with her family in Rhode Island, or if she is returned to her family, what sort of life could she expect to have in Providence? What would she be expected to do?
9. There are references to class differences in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. How important was social class in Rhode Island (or the eastern United States) in 1832? What social classes were there? What was expected of members of each class?
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Avi has written several historical novels for young people, with eighteenth-century America being of particular interest to him. For instance, The Fighting Ground is an account of a day in the life of a thirteen-yearold boy during the Revolutionary War. His experience of battle is harrowing and dispels his romantic notions of combat. Since moving there in 1987, Avi's historical fiction has tended to focus on his adopted home town, Providence. In 1988, he set his ghost story Something Upstairs in Providence; the ghost of a slave haunts an old house. The ghosts in The Man Who Was Poe are imaginary, products of Poe's feverish, alcohol- clouded mind, but in The Man Who Was Poe, Avi captures some of what...
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For Further Reference
Benson, Sonia. "Avi." In Something about the Author. Volume 71. Ed. Diane Telgen. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993, pp. 7-15. Benson lists Avi's books and summarizes his life. She includes an informative interview with Avi.
Bradburn, Frances. Wilson Library Bulletin 65, 8 (April 1991): 100-101. Praises The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.
Burns, Mary M. Horn Book 67, 1 (January- February 1991): 65-66. Recommends The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.
Jones, Trev. School Library Journal 36, 9 (September 1990): 221-22. Unstinting praise for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Nathan, Paul. "Perilous Crossing." Publishers Weekly 245, 7...
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