From the author of Vinnie's War, here is the story of a teenager who ends up as a deck boy on Merchant Navy ships, learning the ropes, fitting in with the crew and facing war-time action in World War II.
David McRobbie is the author of many bestselling books for children and young adults. He has published more than thirty titles since 1990, and had adapted many of his stories for television, including the very funny Wayne series, Eugenie Sandler PI and Fergus McPhail. The BBC adapted his gripping thriller See How They Run.
David's background is a varied one: he has worked as a ship's engineer, a primary school teacher, a college lecturer, a parliamentary researcher in Papua New Guinea, and a radio and television producer with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He lives in Toowong, Queensland and writes full-time.
David was an evacuee in the Second World War, which helped inspire his 2011 novel Vinnie's War. In To Brave the Seas he draws again on his boyhood war memories, and on his later Merchant Navy experiences, to add colour and realism to the story.
Adam, at 15, is dead keen on becoming a sailor. So when his mother dies, WW2 breaks out and his emotionally-withdrawn father talks of abandoning the family home and moving to Glasgow, Adam takes the opportunity to enlist in Britain’s Merchant Navy.
His adventure begins on the Staplehurst as a ‘peggy’. His duties include fetching and carrying food and drink and then cleaning the Mess. However, this is wartime and when the ship is torpedoed by a German U-Boat, the crew abandon ship and rely on their survival skills while bobbing on the ocean in a life-raft. An abandoned, but full, British tanker becomes the means of transport home and a salvage payout to boot.
The author draws on his own experiences in the Navy to write this well-researched novel, and although not a riveting, suspenseful book; the reader gains much insight into life in the navy during wartime. I found the first chapter very depressing: war, death and a dysfunctional father; but more uplifting when Adam does try to reconnect with his father and finds an empathetic friend in Mavis, the girl he can look forward to coming ‘home’ to. The camaraderie, and the support shown to Adam by most of the crew is also heart-warming. The pages are interspersed with black and white illustrations, photographs and posters taken directly from that era. This adds authenticity to the book. I would recommend this book to boys aged 11 to 15.
Nova Gibson, Massey Primary School
Written in an engaging style in the first person, this novel tells the story of Adam Chisholm who grows up in Liverpool. Nearly 14 when the story opens, he has a fascination with the sea and ships as well as Mavis Hill, a girl at his school. After his mother dies in 1940 Adam, then 15, joins the merchant navy story as a deck hand. He makes an instant enemy of Cova who is a bully but he also makes good friends. Adam learns a lot about conveys, lifeboats, fear, friendship and the horrors of war. He experiences a burial at sea, young love and a shipwreck.
David McRobbie writes in a highly readable style that involves the reader. The story moves easily from one situation the next. David McRobbie adds a note about the story at the end. While it is fiction, the story is based on eyewitness accounts that occurred during the Battle of the Atlantic combined with his own merchant navy experiences, like that of being seasick. The glossary at the end explaining unfamiliar words and naval terms is a good idea. This book would be useful in lessons regarding World War 2. It could also be used in lessons about bullying or friendship.
My only quibble was I thought it was a shame in a book for this age group a couple of incidents of blasphemy were used. It would be enough to stop some parents and buying this book, and I felt it didn’t add anything to the dialogue, which was otherwise good.
Once again the author’s own experiences of wartime are used to construct a novel about war in Britain suitable for teens. Adam and Vinnie (the character from David Robbie’s Vinnie’s War)
are both teens when war hits their life. Vinnie becomes an evacuee while Adam chooses to help the war effort without fighting. Adam is fifteen when war breaks out so he joins the Merchant Navy. His ship joins one of the many convoys going to get supplies to bring back to Britain. Not everything goes to plan and Adam finds himself returning to England without the ship but has other adventures before he decides what he wants to do with his life.
With these characters the author gives his readers two different perspectives of wartime Britain. In To Brave the Seas the author conveys a lot of information about Britain when war broke out. The text is dense making is suitable for upper primary and high school students who read well. There is a lot of detail which allows the reader easy access to images of that time. In some passages you can feel the fear and anxiety of the sailors. The text shows how the American influence hasn’t yet become part of everyday life in Britain but the author shares common American culture of the time with the reader. The ending is left open encouraging the reader to do further research to see how the war impacted on the British as it stretched out over many years. Reading the two books alongside each other would give students a detailed insight into wartime and the impact it had on children and families.
Roxanne Steenbergen, Windermere Primary School, TAS
With the increasing interest in our past by the younger generation this new book from David McRobbie is a welcome addition to the shelves. Set in the years just preceding the commencement of World War 2 flowing over into the early years of the war the novel traces the adventures of one Adam Chisolm as his dreams of finding a life on the high seas comes to fruition. After the death of his much loved mother he makes the decision to leave school at the tender age of 14 and a half to work as a merchant seaman. With no experience and extreme youth his entry to the life on the seas is as a ‘Peggy’ the boy who keeps the sailor’s mess clean and food delivered on time and hot. The novel follows his education on the terminology of the seaman and the skill of moving meals from the galley to the mess. It also details the effects the war had on the everyday life of those in Europe- from rationing, to blackouts and the changing role of women in the workforce. Adam also learns the importance of loyalty to fellow sailors and the ways of the sea, including the league of nations working on the ship.
One impact war had on seamanship was the necessity to keep destinations and itinerary's secret in order to limit the damage the German U-boats could inflict. As well as experiencing the misery of seasickness in the middle of a violent ocean Adam gets to visit far off places that the ordinary Britain of the time would have had limited chance to see. His first trip sees him visiting the coast of the USA and Canada to obtain cargo of food and other rationed items as well as mainland Europe. This would be a fantastic novel to use to create historical connections and contexts in the Australian Curriculum History.
Peta Harrison, Teacher Librarian, Albany SHS
David Mc Robbie’s novel To Brave the Seas tells the story of teenage boy, Adam Chisholm who joins the Merchant Navy during WW11 in Britain. With his mother recently dead, no siblings and a father who tells him that he is moving away to Glasgow, Adam looks to life at sea as his new home now that he is 15 and can join up.
The cover artwork by Geoff Kelly captures the movement of the ship and men braving stormy seas to reach their destination and the reader’s imagination. The story, To Brave the Seas, told in the first person, engages the reader from the first page to the final one. On his first ship, Adam soon finds that the life of a deck boy holds many challenges. Not only does he have to learn what his job on the Staplehurst entails, he has to adapt to the different personalities of the seasoned sailors and learn the language of seafaring at the same time.
It is April 1940 and life at sea can be perilous as Adam finds out. He soon faces the threats of torpedoes and the destruction of ships causing death and injuries. On successive ships, the Staplehurst, Rosario and Thistle, Adam experiences first-hand the fear, the uncertainty, the bravery, the mateship and the loyalty of the men who face the threats of enemy attack in the Atlantic Ocean.
To Brave the Seas is also a story of relationships and family: Adam’s family life that disintegrates with his mother’s death, the sense of family he gets from the friendship of the sailors who look out for him, and the gently developing relationship Adam has with Mavis, the girl from school who experiences her own losses in the war. At the start of each chapter an interesting full page of pencil sketches and maps adds another dimension to the storyline. As Adam learns the new language of seafaring, so also does the reader. Just in case a reference is needed a glossary of terms used in the book is included. Students in upper primary and junior secondary will appreciate this engaging and informative novel.
Margaret Warner, NSW
An old gentleman of my acquaintance, John, has always intrigued me because of the baseball cap he wears and the accent in his English: neither totally an American twang nor pukkah British, more a unique blend of the two, or “mid-Atlantic”, as people used to describe the accent belonging to the late Alistair Cooke, urbane US-based correspondent for the BBC and famous for his weekly “Letter From America”. John was born in England, but the mid-Atlantic became his “home”.
Well, John had run away to sea in his early teens during World War II and joined the Merchant Marine, just like Adam Chisholm, the young hero of this engaging novel by noted author and scriptwriter David McRobbie. McRobbie writes from direct experience of the post-war sailor’s life. Luckily he was spared the life-and-death gamble played out by Adam and his fellow seafarers in every convoy crossing of the war-torn North Atlantic.
Fleeing poverty in Liverpool on the Mersey, and a distant widowed father, Adam signs on as a humble galley hand, or “Peggy”, and loses little time in finding his sea legs, despite what the North Atlantic winter throws at him and his shipmates, not to mention the lurking threat from German U-boats. Eventually torpedoed and cast adrift in a lifeboat, Adam and the surviving crew chance upon a deserted oil tanker mid-ocean, echoing a real event from World War II. Somehow they return the ship to running order and bring it safely home to Scotland, much to the astonishment of the shore authorities.
After some shore leave, Adam signs on to a new ship, a tired dirty collier, which ends up deliberately ramming a U-boat docked in the neutral port of Lisbon when Adam’s elderly skipper decides to end his career with an act of reckless heroism: as he saw it, the U-boats had terrorised the Merchant Marine long enough, and needed some of their own medicine: ”Take you by surprise, did we?...Don’t like that kind of fighting,eh?” (p.199).
Does a novel that some might take to be a Boys’ Own Adventure from a bygone era have a place in today’s list of recommended reads? Most definitely. Highlighting the virtues of following one’s dream, making a commitment to a greater cause, working in a team regardless of age and accepting the responsibility of developing a personal balance between work time and leisure time, with young love a foil for the greyness of war and challenges of the sea, the story of Adam Chisholm is a worthy addition to Australia’s YA record.
Brian Edwards, Loyola Senior High School, Mt Druitt NSW
McRobbie uses the technique of creating a character based on historical research as well as lived experience. Adam is to be the fifteen year old ‘hero’ of a wartime adventure with a twist. McRobbie makes the historical facts he has researched very accessible to a younger audience. He presents the voice of Adam, his protagonist, in first person narrative. Adam has simple ambitions at the start of the story, he just wants to ‘be a sailor’ and ‘get away from home’. Adam has grown up in Birkenhead, across the Mersey from Liverpool, ‘the busiest seaport in the whole of Britain’. Three factors complicate Adam’s ambitions and his story. One is his father, who is a ‘hollow man’, something which is revealed to the reader quite gradually. The second factor is that Adam’s adored, ‘lovely’ mother is gravely ill and in fact dies on page 6. This day is marked by the third complication, in that Neville Chamberlain announces that Britain was at war on the same day.
With the combination of these three factors, precipitated by being suddenly homeless, Adam is forced to enter his nautical future in a great hurry, and he takes a berth as deck boy, or ‘Peggy’, starboard side, on the first available merchant ship, the cargo ship Staplehurst. Thus he becomes a Merchant Seaman at the age of fifteen, right at the beginning of World War 2.
McRobbie creates an authentic picture of life aboard a ship for a boy amongst men. Adam learns the necessary terminology, which is very well researched, and takes to shipboard life very successfully. Adam has a short time to become accustomed to the life before the ship is pressed into war service, and that is when the epic events of the adventure unfold. Suffice to say there is enough action to keep the boys happy, and enough character development and even romance to keep the girls happy. Along the way young readers will gain real knowledge about history, World War 2, and especially the nautical life of the era. There are also lessons about cowardice, self-interest; and justice, bravery, courage, and self-sacrifice.
For the adult reader, McRobbie provides perspective on what war means for the young: and on what some young people are capable of, even when presented with inadequate parenting. The book is almost a ‘rollicking yarn’, very readable and enjoyable.
Helen Wilde, SA
Age: 11+, Novel, Merchant Navy, World War Two, Highly recommended
When his mother dies, and his father decides to leave for work in Glasgow, Adam is at a loss, but buoyed by stories of the Merchant Navy, he joins up, appearing at the nearby Liverpool Docks, ready for work. But it is 1940, and German submarines are plying the sea routes between England and North America, and Adam’s first ship is part of a convoy headed west. Battling seasickness and getting used to his new role on board, as Peggy, the lowest of the jobs, taking meals across a cold wet deck to the mess, fetching and carrying hot cups of tea, everything is new to him. But he survives, partly through the kindness of the other sailors who help him, teaching him the way of the ship and the new set of words to learn. This most unusual background will entice readers to hear of the war from quite a different perspective. McRobbie’s Merchant Navy background comes to the fore as we learn incidentally about what the ships did during the war, evading U-boats to get supplies to England. Adam is a likable young man who holds the readers’ attention to the end.
Crossing the Atlantic, they are torpedoed and scuttle onto the lifeboats to try and survive. When all luck has run out they are rescued when a passing ship, abandoned by its crew, becomes their new home. They take control and steer it to a port, only to be chastised for their blocking the way. Later they are in harbour in neutral Portugal, when the captain decides that they will do something about the German submarine moored nearby. An adventure story which exposes a great deal of information about the Merchant Navy and the men who sailed during the war, this book will readily find a place in the reading list of schools, libraries and students, wanting something a little different from the huge range of books about war on offer at the moment. At the end of the book, McRobbie includes a list of all the words Adam must learn, and devotes several pages to the real story of the Merchant Navy and its role in war time history.
There are times when I read a book and I find myself immersed in the life and world of the characters. This was one such book. Set in 1940, in war-torn Britain, David McRobbie so masterfully evokes the sense of time and place in this interesting and unique take on serving your country, that you can almost smell the sea.
Fifteen year old Adam Chisholm is a boy abandoned. His mother dead; his feckless father has disappeared; Adam is too young to fight, so he decides to enlist with the Merchant Navy. This leads him into many adventures, meeting many interesting characters and causing him to face death and disaster on a daily basis. Boys become men very quickly. Adam is a boy of good character, despite his family situation and his father’s behaviour. This is depicted very well in his conduct aboard ship, and when tested by both happy times during shore leave, and in disaster, when his ship is attacked. A good discussion point for students.
The author himself served in the Merchant Navy and this is evident in the authenticity of the descriptions of life at sea. If I had one quibble with the book, it would be with the lack of vernacular language when the action is set in Birkenhead and Liverpool. Adam’s dialogue, both internal and spoken, is more middle class than his upbringing and location would suggest, but whilst it jarred a little with me, I would not say it spoiled what is a very good read.
One comment from students I have shown the book too: they didn’t like the cover art. The font is not easy to read and the illustration they didn’t find appealing. I often tell students not to judge a book by its cover, but unfortunately if the cover isn’t appealing it makes the selling job a little harder.
Debbie Williams, Mountain District Christian School