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Tom Chaney. No. R756: No frigate like a book

Of Writers and Their Books No. R756: First appeared 1 April 2007 in the Hart County Herald.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column : Tom Chaney: R755: Your history is not my history

By Tom Chaney

No frigate like a book

I just returned from the Dry Tortugas. It was my second attempt to get there.

For those of you who are as geographically challenged as was I at Christmas 1964, the Dry Tortugas are those low islands which form a constellation in the Gulf of Mexico off Key West, Florida.

That 1964 trip was aborted due to high seas. I was traveling with my Uncle Carl and my Aunt Virginia and a couple of cousins. At the time that uncle and aunt were aiming to see all of the furthest points one could see on the continental United States. They had made it to the point below New Orleans where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico and to quite a few other extremities of the country.

Weary of cramming the round peg of English in to the square holes of Caverna High School freshmen, I was headed for Texas with Cousin Sam, a student at Western. We met Carl, Virginia, and their son Bill at a Chaney gathering in Woodburn. Carl found we were headed for Texas with no real aim but to escape. The invitation to join their Florida jaunt was issued and accepted.

I had never heard of the Dry Tortugas -- no matter. The trip was a whirlwind of oranges, smoked shrimp, bad puns, cheap lodging, and pitch (high, low, jick, jack, joke, and the game).

At Key West we brave sailors five embarked on a smallish vessel with sundry other tourists and headed south. The waves were up. The boat was pitching and heaving as were our breakfasts. The captain proclaimed the seas too rough to continue. We sailed about until we had fed the last fish then returned to Key West. Our chagrin at not getting to Fort Jefferson paled before our relief to be on firm land once more.

I did not head back to the Tortugas until last week. The new frigate was a less queasy and more vividly enlightening mystery. Flashback by Nevada Barr [Berkley Books, 2004] is the eleventh adventure of Ms Barr's sleuth, Anna Pigeon, a ranger with the National Park Service.

Barr has folded her writing career into that of a NPS ranger. She leavened the mix with a healthy respect for the environment. Out of oven come the adventures of Anna.

I vaguely learned a bit of history of the keys of the Dry Tortugas in 1964. Barr focuses splendidly on that history.

The title, Flashback, derives from the fictional technique Barr uses here. Fort Jefferson on Garden Key was under construction during and just after the Civil War as a first line of defense for the mainland. Trouble was that as it was built it began sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

Construction was halted when it was realized that the fort was too heavy for its foundation.

Though never completed, Fort Jefferson served as a prison after the war. Here it was that Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted as a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Dr. Mudd treated John Wilkes Booth, setting his leg broken in his fall at Ford's Theatre as he leapt to the stage from Lincoln's box.

Barr weaves her tale through a series of letters from Anna's great, great aunt Raffia who was married to the commandant of Fort Jefferson at the close of the Civil War. The letters are addressed to her sister Peggy, great, great grandmother of Anna.

We are treated to a fine tale blending Nineteenth Century intrigue with Twenty-First Century immigrant smuggling. Great, great Aunt Raffia is in charge of her younger sister. The sisters become involved with Dr. Mudd and two other prisoners.

The device of a flashback here is used with skill. Andrew Nelson Lytle, Tennessee critic and novelist, once called the flashback the crudest device in fiction, yet he used it most effectively in his novel The Velvet Horn in which the door to the past is discovered in a boy's gaze into his reflection in a clear lake.

Anna finds herself captive to the events of the 1860's by a bit of deviltry worked by one of the smugglers. Some tricks the reviewer does not give away. That is one.

Anna solves the mysteries of murder ancient and modern there in paradise finally escaping that assignment in anticipation her upcoming wedding.Dr. Mudd in actuality made his own escape. His life sentence was later commuted by President Andrew Johnson as a reward for heroic medical work during an epidemic of yellow fever at Fort Jefferson.

Anna Pigeon has moved west to the Sierra and Rocky mountains. She is steadily rising through the ranks of the NPS.

Of her present work, Barr writes, "Katrina sort of blew our heroine out of the water. (I live in New Orleans.) BUT she is back in action. I begin the research for the next book in January 2007. It will be set during Winter Study (an on-going study of the wolves on Isle Royale) during the months of January and February. If I do not actually freeze to death, or get murdered by biologists tired of hearing me whine about the cold, the book should be interesting."

I'll be ready for more.Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-04-01 13:03:56
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