Seven Thousand Pelts in the Bins

At lunch today, we discussed which fiction books changed each of our lives. People talked about Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion, anything by Walt Whitman, and The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald. When the group asked me to list my top three, I admit I was ashamed to admit the truth. “Hmm, well, hmm,” I said in a scholarly tone, “I'm quite fond of anything by Raymond Carver. And, of course, Grace Paley.” I did not tell the whole truth. Yes, I do like Raymond Carver, but one of my favorite books is one I had at my grandparents’ house. It’s The Knockabout Club Alongshore by C.A. Stephens. It doesn’t have interesting symbols, metaphors, or complex narrative structure. It’s a standard issue boy’s adventure book about “The adventures of a party of young men on a trip from Boston to the land of the midnight sun.”

I know every page and spent hours as a kid staring at the maps of Nova Scotia and etchings of sailing adventures. The Knockabout Club was published in 1883. No, I did not read it when it was first released. When you’re eight, and there are icebergs, polar bears, Vikings, and the northern lights the publication date doesn’t matter.

            The deck—when we were able to catch sight of it for “skulps” (seal cub scalps)—was almost slippery with gore.

Lines like these are thrilling to any young boy. No worries, I do recognize now that clubbing seal cubs for scalps is not okay. I look at the book now, and am impressed with the actual design. The bright cover screams sailing adventure. I love the detailed initial caps, or in some instances, initial words. For years, I’ve wanted to go to Antarctica. Now I know the genesis of this desire. I am, however, a little confused as to why my grandparents gave me a book from 1883 to read while my friends were reading Deathwatch.