________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 22. . . .February 11, 2011.


Trouble on the Voyage.

Bob Barton.
Toronto, ON: Napoleon, 2010.
220 pp., pbk., $10.95.
ISBN 978-1-926607-10-8.

Subject Heading:
Northwest Passage-Discovery and exploration-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Harriet Zaidman.

**½ /4



Captain James ordered us to report to him on the main deck this afternoon. The weather was damp and dismal. A mist hung over us, and out of the mist a cold drizzle watered our faces. I hunched my shoulders against it. The Captain appeared calm, but his thoughts were written all over his face. “Gentlemen, our ship is leaking badly and in need of repairs. You are exhausted from the constant pumping and from sickness. Under these conditions, we have no chance of making it back to Hudson Strait before it is frozen over. I have decided that we will spend the winter here.”

Ontario storyteller and author Bob Barton has written a well-researched fictional account of one of the many voyages launched to fulfil the British monarchy’s quest to find a Northwest Passage to China. Using an expedition led by Captain Thomas James in 1631, Barton shows how difficult and dangerous were those trips, how the goal for riches and world domination overrode common sense and the needs of the sailors whose lives were at stake, how pride often led to disastrous consequences.

     A fictional ‘ship’s boy’, Jeremy, narrates the story through his diaries. The first person approach is the book’s strength because Jeremy can take advantage of his age. Adults ignore him as they exchange gossip or discuss conspiracies. It’s the book’s weakness, as well, in that Jeremy’s voice has tones that weave in and out between the 17th to the 21st century.

     Barton wants to teach the reader about daily life on the ship. But a poor ship’s boy, literate though Jeremy is, would never have the time or resources to record information to the extent that this character does. Considering the continual demands Jeremy describes to work for the cook at all hours, considering the time occupied by the struggle to survive the winter in impossible conditions, and considering the cost and scarcity of materials, each diary entry is too long, even those that are only a page or two. Barton’s need to fill space leads him to include entries with contradictory voices. For example, a tender farewell to two shipmates is believably put:

     We laid John Burton to rest this morning. He was buried on Brandon Hill beside Mr. Cole. Strange to say, I felt content about this turn of events. John has escaped his watery grave and is on dry land. And Mr. Cole will not be alone when we are gone.

     versus Jeremy’s concerns about a family mystery:

     Will use to recite it (a rhyme). Under his breath sort of, as he prowled about the house. I never gave it much thought. Mother didn’t say it. Clara didn’t know it either. I don’t remember any other rhymes being spoken at home, just that one and only by Will. Now I’m curious. Is it a nonsense story? Could it be a riddle? …If the weather ever favours us, I must remind him about it. Then again I’m not sure that he will even let me speak to him.

     Jeremy’s father was a bargeman who engaged in smuggling and who was murdered. Jeremy is an unknowing victim of his father’s criminal activities. His mother indentures him and his older brother, Will, after she is plunged into poverty. Jeremy is unaware until the very end about the truth surrounding his father, but there is no great feeling of suspense as he puts the pieces of the puzzle together. The epistolary format requires that he mull the matter over and over, reducing the reader’s sense of anticipation and curiosity. A first person memoir would have been effective and would have still contained the immediacy of Jeremy’s experiences and observations.

     The cover of the book gives the reader the impression that there is a contemporary connection. Jeremy is depicted in a photograph – a modern representation, gazing down at a drawing of the ship and an early map. One expects that the modern-looking child, wearing a machine-knit scarf, is recalling an adventure of when he was drawn into the past. Pencil drawings and a map within the book show action and the raw emotions of the sailors.

     But young readers can discover a great deal about the early explorers and what they experienced. Barton demonstrates great understanding of how people lived in that situation. How anyone survived the elements, scurvy, confinement, depression and madness is a testament to the will to live and often to exemplary leadership. Captain James got his ill-prepared crew through a northern winter somewhere in the mouth of the Nelson River. Half-dead through disease and starvation, he still wanted to pursue the dream of the Northwest Passage in their leaky boat. According to this account, which used the real Captain James’s diaries as research material, a threatened mutiny made him return to England.

     That resiliency and the desperation that drove men to become sailors paved the way for others to explore and exploit the New World.

     Archaic words and nautical terms are sprinkled liberally throughout the book. They can generally be understood through the dialogue and the narrative, but a glossary at the end defines them precisely. As well as being a professional storyteller, Barton is the author of many books for children, including Bear Says North and Poetry Goes to School (with David Booth). He writes: “There are many fascinating stories hidden in the nooks and crannies between history’s main events. The dangerous journey of the Henrietta Maria is one of them.”

     Despite some difficulties in the tone and voice of this book, children can learn much about some of these real-life dramas.


Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.