Friday, April 13, 2012

Re-reading: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

I’ve heard many friends talk about the books that define them—books that, for some reason, stuck with us more than most. For me, many of these books come from my youth, and in this recurring feature, I want to go back and read these books from an adult perspective, and assess how my attitudes toward the books have changed. In the best scenarios, I’ll discover more to love about the books than I remembered; in the worst, I’ll find that some books I hold so dear and loved so much maybe aren't that good after all. (I really hope that doesn’t happen too often.) Let me know if you have any suggestions for books to re-read!

I was walking up Broadway on an unseasonably warm Saturday in March, trying to delay the end of my lunch hour by perusing the used book tables on the sidewalk. (Sidenote: The existence of these tables is, and will remain, my absolute favorite thing about Manhattan.) After two tables and no luck, I started to head back to work, almost altogether skipping the last table. But something stopped me in my tracks. It was a cover—well, half of a cover, actually—with a young girl in a poufy blue dress with some seriously 80’s-influenced bangs. It was Charlotte Doyle: sailor, childhood hero, and ultimate bad ass.

I bought the book for $4, and didn’t even try to haggle.

I can’t be sure, but I think this book made me a feminist. Or a tomboy. Or, most likely, a feminist tomboy. It is action-packed, with sailing, betrayal, murder, and a clearly psychotic captain, all rolled into 226 pages. As a kid I loved the adventure, but the book is much more than that. It teaches young women to speak their minds and stand up for themselves, it portrays a strong, intelligent female character who throws away the frivolity of her upper class society life for something that makes her feel important, and it has a dash of racial issues to boot.

And then there is this passage. Before rereading, I remembered almost nothing about this book except for this one image of Charlotte, climbing rigging on a ship during a storm:

Though I was in fact climbing into the air, I felt as though I were swimming against a rising river tide. But more than rain or waves it was the screaming wind that tore at me. I could hardly make out where I was going. To make matters worse my wet and heavy hair, like a horse’s tail, kept whipping across my face. I might have been blindfolded. 
Desperate, I wrapped my legs and one arm about the ropes. With my one free arm I pulled my hair around, grasped it with the hand entwined in the ropes, and pulled it taut. I took the knife and hacked. With a shake of my head my thirteen year’s growth of hair fell away.

I still remember how I felt reading that--almost feeling the knife catching on tough strands of hair, and the lightness of it when it falls. I wanted to do something, anything, that would feel like that. I wanted to wrap my toes around wet rope and slice through sails. I wanted to travel. Really, I wanted to be Charlotte.

Seriously, is there a female character badder ass than this? (No, really, tell me. I want to read about her.)

Grade I would have given this book as a kid: A-
Re-reading grade: A+
Status: My childhood dreams remain in tact. 


  1. I, surprisingly, never read this book, but I love your take on it. I think it's really important for young girls to read positive female role models. As for recommendations of re-reads, did you ever read The Journey of Natty Gan? I really liked that one when I was a wee tot.

    1. I never read this either and now I want to. I love badass female protagonists and agree with Jill's comment.

      As for a suggestion, Jacob Have I Loved. I remember that it haunted me as a kid. I reread it a few years ago and it didn't disappoint. Would love to see you feature that one. Really enjoying your blog very much.

    2. PS: Another badass female: Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins. Another one that never disappoints upon rereading.

  2. No, I never read that! I'll see if I can find a copy.

  3. "The Giver" and "Number the Stars" by Lois Lowry immediately popped into my head when I read this. Also, "Jacob Have I Loved" by Katherine Patterson and "Shiloh" by Gary Paulsen.

    Looking forward to your next review!

  4. The Giver is actually coming up soon! I somehow never read Number the Stars, but I think I'll give it a read since it really is a gaping hole in my reading experience. Thanks so much for the suggestions!

  5. I just read Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech for the first time in over a decade. It was so much better than I remembered, and I was sobbing by the end. What a mature and complex take on adolescent grief wrapped in a deceptively whimsical package!

    I am currently obsessed with the first books in the Delirium trilogy by Lauren Oliver. If you haven't read them, put them on your list...

    1. Oh, yes! I've already devoured the first Delirium books! I thought they were quite engaging. I'm going to start working on some Dystopian trilogy posts, and Oliver's books will definitely be on the list.