The more Andre Norton I read and reread, the more convinced I am that her real forte, and her real talent, lay in boys’ adventure. She tried all sorts of genres, and from the Sixties onward she developed a clearly feminist sensibility. My favorite works of hers have strong female protagonists and relatively complicated emotional arcs.
And yet, she seems most at ease in worlds with little or no sexual tension, and nothing to distract from the headlong pace of the action. Usually it’s a man’s world, with women’s voices heard seldom if at all. Women exist to die offstage (especially if they’re the protagonist’s mother) or to act as servants or to play the role of witch or Wisewoman. The relationships that matter are between men.
Yankee Privateer, published in 1955, is a relatively rare excursion into straight historical fiction.
It reads to me like Hornblower Lite. Maybe she had read the first volume of the saga (published in 1950) and been inspired. Or maybe it was in the Zeitgeist.
Norton was no C.S. Forester and I don’t think aspired to be, but she did quite a lot of research and made sure to mention it in her front matter. Each chapter header is an excerpt from a song of the period. There are plenty of the tiny, telling details that define a period and encourage the reader to trust that the author has done her homework properly.
The protagonist is her standard-issue plucky orphan pushed through a series of adventures by forces beyond his control. This version is named Fitzhugh Lyon, and he’s the son of an English aristocrat and the daughter of a wealthy Maryland family. He’s been raised as a poor relation, and as the story begins, he’s riding his mare and toting his long rifle northward to join the American Revolutionary army.
Fate however has other plans for him. When he stops for the night, he runs afoul of a naval officer recruiting for a privateer. After he refuses the offer, by another quirk of fate he finds himself lodged with the captain himself. He still insists on heading for the land army—but ends up being press-ganged and hauled off to the ship.
That is not the stalwart young captain’s idea, but that of his lieutenant who has taken a violent dislike to poor Fitz. By the time it’s sorted out, the Retaliation is at sea and the only way Fitz can get back to the mainland is by signing on as a marine and hoping to be sent home either with a prize crew or from the next port of call, which happens to be on the far side of the Atlantic.
There’s a hole in the plot, in that Fitz never makes an effort to ship on any of the prizes captured during an exceptionally lucky voyage. He hangs in until they get to Brittany, then through a series of mishaps and misadventures, ends up back on the ship and being taken captive during a naval battle in the English Channel. This deposits him in prison, from which he and his captain make a daring and clever escape—but fate continues to play games with him. He’s separated from the captain during the escape, and eventually meets his long-lost grandfather and the old man’s dissolute rakehell heir.
Despite strong pressure from his grandfather, Fitz has absolutely no desire to depose the heir and take his place, and nothing he sees of the family or its holdings changes his mind. They’re horrible and he’s horrified. All he wants to do is get back to the Americas.
Or so he thinks. Once he has a real, actual choice, he opts to sign on permanently with his doughty captain, and become a wholehearted, fully voluntary Yankee Privateer. And so they sail off together into the sunset.
As happens more often than not in Norton’s all or mostly male universes, there’s a distinct undertone of male-male romance. When Fitz first meets the captain, he reacts physically the way a romance heroine does on meeting the hero. Of course he never comes out and expresses his feelings, but it’s clear he’s in love, and he follows his love literally through hell and high water. It’s presented as the loyalty of a naval officer for his captain, but let’s face it, that’s not all that’s going on there.
There’s an obligatory bit of of-its-time discomfort—before Fitz went off to war, he earned his keep by serving as an overseer on the family plantation—but the way he expresses it is pretty accurate for the period, and he’s not blatantly racist. He has no problem interacting with the free Black man in the ship’s crew, and there’s a reference to the horrors of a slave ship. As these things go, it’s fairly inoffensive.
All in all it’s a solid example of its genre. There’s a sort of sequel, Stand and Deliver, published in 1984, which I’ll tackle next. It will be interesting to see how the two compare.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.