Books ó On the Spur of Speed

A dry but accurate read; Fender offers facts but little life in seacoast history

On the Spur of Speed, by J. E. Fender, University Press of New England, 2005, 313 pages.

By Lisa Parsons

On the Spur of Speed is the fourth historical novel in a series by Portsmouth attorney J. E. Fender. I didnít like it as much as I wanted to.

The plotlines are solid and the regional interest inviting, but thereís too little emotion. The writing is formal-ish, the characters hard to connect with. Fender said in a 2002 Portsmouth Herald article that his intent is to provide a serious literary record more than a blockbuster thriller, and in that we can consider his work a success; just donít expect to be terribly absorbed by it.

The series began with The Private Revolution of Geoffrey Frost in 2002 and centers on a young mariner based in Portsmouth during the American Revolution. This new installment has two disconnected storylines told in alternating chapters: one concerning Benedict Arnoldís battle against the British on Lake Champlain, the other concerning a slave ship with a fearsome captain.

The Lake Champlain storyline describes the Battle of Valcour Island, a pivotal event in which the rebels were acutely defeated but delayed the British sufficiently to affect the outcome of the war. Geoffreyís brother, Joseph, takes part in the battle and we view it from his perspective.

The slave-ship storyline describes Geoffrey Frostís first sea voyage, at the age of 10. It ends with his life in extreme danger, but because of the earlier books in the series we know heíll live. This tale seems to exist to (1) allow Fender to explain, however dryly, the horror of those slave ships, and (2) color in some of Geoffrey Frostís past, so that we might know, again however dryly, how his character was formed.

Local history buffs might want this one for their collections as a formality; there isnít really a lot of local color in it. Nautical history fanatics similarly might want to add this to their cache. Readers already interested in Lake Champlain history will be attracted by the jacket copy but not especially engaged by the text. If any of the above have already read the works of Kenneth Roberts and are hoping for more in the same vein, they will be disappointed.

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