The Orphan Angel combines elements of the historical romance and picaresque novel by bringing back to life, on the day he died, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and setting him on a quest across the United States to rescue a young woman.
The novel is divided into ten chapters, each of which is titled with a quotation from Shelley. The first chapter, “Western Wave,” pairs the Shelley character, named Shiloh, with David Butternut, a young, kind, but unsophisticated New England sailor. This chapter recounts the fantastic premise on which the historical romance is built. David Butternut, after killing a fellow sailor—in a fashion reminiscent of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd—rescues a man from drowning in Italy’s Leghorn Harbor. The young man is pulled from the shores of Italy at about the same time Shelley is said to have drowned, about 6:30 p.m. on July 8, 1822. Butternut believes that the rescue of the man, who resembles Jasper Cross, the scoundrel sailor he accidentally killed, atones for his own crime, and he vows to become the man’s loyal friend. Butternut, who would not have heard of the poet Shelley, mishears his name and calls him Shiloh (a nickname the Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, gave to Shelley). Shelley accepts the new identity and sails to Boston on the New England clipper ship Witch of the West in place of the dead Jasper Cross.
The picaresque element of...
(The entire section is 565 words.)