In Balboa, Syme has clearly endeavored to write a book that will engage the young reader’s imagination and sense of adventure even as it communicates the basic information and concerns of Balboa’s life. Much of the power of Syme’s portrait of Balboa derives from the vivid depiction of the world in which he lived. Syme devotes much attention to the rigors of the seagoing life, to the dangers that sailors and explorers faced, and to both the uncertainty and excitement of exploring a new continent. He describes in explicit detail the constant warfare with the native populations and the dissent among the Spanish, as well as the battles waged against disease, hunger, weather, and ubiquitous pests such as bats, mosquitoes, and toads.
The evocation of this wild world has two effects. First, it provides the natural background for Syme’s portrayal of the human world, where ambition and deceit run rampant. The glory of exploration is reduced to greed, profiteering, and the lust for gold, pearls, and land—a true reflection of historical fact—and the society in which Balboa lived appears to be as dangerous as the natural world. It is indeed ironic that, after braving storms and jungles, Balboa is executed by his own vicious countrymen. Though Syme relates Balboa’s end abruptly, it comes as no surprise because the story is littered with evil and envious men who wish to destroy Balboa.
The second effect is the juxtaposition of violent nature with the basic calmness, goodness, faithfulness, and generosity of Balboa’s character. Because even the natives fear the swamps and mountains that separate them from the Pacific, in his courage Balboa stands virtually alone. Syme casts him as a levelheaded, knowledgeable, fearless, openhearted, trusting, and trustworthy man whose leadership potential is irrepressible. Far from being a man driven by ambition and personal gain, Balboa seems to be devoted to the pursuit of truth and the service of his nation and king. Thus, he rises to a position of power not by seeking it but by attaining the knowledge and skills—in navigation, in combat, in diplomacy, and in administration—that cause others to seek his help and counsel; rather than climb to the top, he is delivered there by his followers.
Syme sees Balboa as absolutely deserving of his men’s trust. He can do little wrong and seems to have a magic touch. Though each battle is grueling, Balboa consistently emerges victorious with a minimum of Spanish...
(The entire section is 624 words.)