The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (1990), by Avi

“Avi” is the pseudonym of the extremely prolific American author Edward Irving Wortis.  Avi won a Newbery Honor Award in 1991 for Charlotte Doyle.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

I know that The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a perennial favourite with child readers, and understand why this is so: it is a “rip-roaring adventure on the high seas,” starring a female protagonist disguised as a boy.  What could be more fun? But this is one of the worst historical novels—in terms of historicity—that I know of, and the obsessive-compulsive historian in me cannot get past that flaw.  While it is an exciting adventure story, it is implausible in its characterization of a 13-year-old girl who becomes a deckhand under a ruthless and unjust captain.  The attempt is made to justify her success, but it falls short, especially in terms of her physical abilities.  The depiction of life on a commercial sailing ship in 1832 is well recreated, and the language does suggest the time period (although there are better literary examples), but Charlotte herself is neither a modern implant nor a plausible 1832 character, and thus fails utterly.

In cases like this, I return repeatedly to the question of historicity as a requirement within children’s literature, and I must admit that I do not find myself on firm ground. While I (like my similarly OCD tween daughter) am offended by authors who do not apply their research findings to their narrative (because obviously Avi has done his research!), there is nonetheless something to be said for the production of such strong female protagonists, however historically implausible.  Or have we now reached a place where female protagonists can be fully authentic without this historical inauthenticity? Certainly a number of realist authors have managed to create positive female role models for young readers.  Yet even Karen Cushman’s Catherine (Catherine, Called Birdy [1994]) suffers from the imposition of a modern sensibility into an otherwise fabulously constructed historical reality (think of her sympathy with the bear). So what are we to do? Where are we to draw the line? I am not sure there is a solid answer, but I do know that in terms of where I personally draw that line, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle falls on the wrong side…

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