________________ CM . . . . Volume VIII Number 14 . . . . March 15, 2002

cover Compass Murphy.

Stephen Potts.
London, Eng: Mammoth, 2001. (Distributed in Canada by Stewart House Publishing)
341 pp., pbk., $7.99. ISBN 0-7497-4027-2.
ISBN 1-55050-193-3.

Subject Headings:
Arctic regions-Discovery and exploration-Fiction.
Adventure stories.

Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.

Review by Darleen Golke.

*** /4


'Now, lad, tell me how you did it.'

'I just know where north is, sir. I don't know how.'

'Really?' The captain looked up as the first mate returned to the deck.

'A blindfold, if you would Mr Hobbs.' A scarf was wrapped around Joshua's head, covering his eyes, and tied tightly at the back. The captain spun him round two or three times, then stopped him sharp. 'Point north,' he commanded.

Without hesitation, Joshua indicated with an outstretched arm. Mr Colback's voice from the helm confirmed that he was right.

He was spun again, this time the opposite way. 'Again,' said the captain. Joshua indicated. 'He's right, Cap'n,' said Mr Colback, to a murmur from the rest of the crew.

This happened over and over, in the bows, at the stern, amidships, even briefly, below decks, to satisfy Mr Hobbs that it wasn't the sun, or the wind, or the roll of the ship that Joshua navigated by. The spinning was increasingly elaborate, the captain sometimes moving with Joshua, sometimes the opposite way, to confuse him further but every time Joshua's arm shot out, Mr Colback's voice answered with increasing admiration: 'Right again, sir.'

Determined to secure their future with one last whaling trip, Thomas Murphy, entrusting his son to the mercies of his sister and her harsh husband, embarks from Whitby, UK, on the Lindisfarne. Joshua recognizes that his father loves the sea and knows "his going to sea again wasn't just about money." Patiently, Joshua endures the ensuing months under Flint's tyranny, a schoolmaster's brutality, and his cousin's treachery, eagerly awaiting his father's return. However, when the other whalers gradually return, the Lindisfarne is not among them. Through a winter of "bullying and back-breaking work," only "the companionship of Nelson (the farm dog), secret kindnesses from Esther and Emmy, and a still-fresh hope for better things" sustain Joshua. By spring, he decides to take matters into his own hands, runs from the Flint home, and stows away aboard the Aurora, a whaler heading north.

     When sailors discover Joshua hiding in one of the boats, only the captain's firm intervention prevents a nasty confrontation. Set to work, Joshua eagerly learns all he can about sailing and discovers a natural ability to find "true north,"earning him the moniker, Compass Murphy. The much anticipated whale hunt shocks Joshua with its brutality and finality. "Just hours ago, before I cried him out," he laments, "he was a magnificent beast, a rightful ruler of the waves. Now he's just carrion for the sea crows." The captain explains that, when the whale is in the water, "it is a whale," but, to the crew, "it is a roof overhead, and shoes underfoot. It is food within and clothi ng without. It is doctors' bills and not having to fear a pauper's grave." The quest for whales takes the Aurora ever further north through fields of ice which "in all its variety . . . held [Joshua] in thrall." However, the captain, in his zeal to fill the hold with cargo, leaves heading south too la te, and the Aurora is beset. During the ensuing months, Joshua hones his hunting and survival skills. Caught in a "williwaw . . . sudden furious winds which roared down from the mountains, whipping up the snow into blinding blizzard, and tearing the clothes from anyone caught," he is rescued by a group of Inuit. Simva, an Inuit girl, teaches him the skills of hunting, running dog sleds, kayaking, and generally educates him about life in the harsh northern land. Throughout his apprenticeship aboard ship and on land, Joshua never loses his focus on finding his father. Sadly, an adventure with Simva that goes awry actually leads to his discovery of Lindisfarne wreckage and his father's fate.

     Potts, an Edinburgh consulting psychiatrist and an avid seaman, tells a traditional adventure story featuring an appealing and enthusiastic protagonist and a plot in which the physical setting plays a major role. He portrays the power and majesty of the sea and the Arctic against the resolution and courage of the men who earn their living challenging the treacherous conditions and hunting the magnificent creatures of the deep. Potts succeeds in infusing the adventure with powerful descriptive passages contrasting the beauty with the barrenness and illustrating the basic struggle against the unforgiving elements. Using the nineteenth century setting with the male camaraderie that characterizes life aboard the whaler allows the author to illustrate the importance of skills and experience in coping with physical danger. Joshua develops from a motherless boy exploited by an unfeeling farmer to a valued crew member of a whaling ship earning the respect and friendship of his fellows. He confidently concludes "that the only home he'd ever have was on the deck of a ship, at sea." Animal rights advocates may disapprove of the whale hunt aspect of the story, but Potts is careful to underscore the reasons for and the time frame within which the whaling industry flourished. Compass Murphy targets young male readers with its classic man versus nature conflict in this coming of age tale.


Darleen Golke is a retired high school teacher-librarian who lives in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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ISSN 1201-9364