History Swamps Storytelling in Stars on the Sea

Stars on the Sea is F. van Wyck Mason’s novelized account of how American got its Navy.

Tim Bennett, son of a prosperous Newport merchant, takes lunar leave from the army defending Boston at the urging of his fiancé, Lucy. He’s just getting home when Redcoats burn Newport, beggaring the family. In the skirmish, Tim’s sister’s   Redcoat lover is killed and her affair made public. Desire flees Newport to live as best a beautiful teenage girl can on her own.

Lucy’s family hustle her off so she won’t marry Tim. He takes off to the Bahamas in hopes of getting letters of marque and using one of his father’s ships there to restore the family fortune—and harrass the British.

Van Wyck Mason falls into the trap that catches so many historical novelists: he puts in too much history. In fact-dense fashion, he tries to show maritime events from Maine to Trinidad. The result is a tenuous patchwork of events, people, places.

That patchwork quality is the novel’s salvation. The characters are too sketchy, the plot too dependent on coincidence for the story to withstand concentrated attention on any one character.

Stars on the Sea
By F. van Wyck Mason
J. B. Lippincott, 1940
720 pages
My grade: C

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The edge is off Cutlass Empire

During the 1600s, England, France, and Spain struggled for world domination. Intrigues in the European courts had effects around the globe. F. Van Wyck Mason takes readers back to that time with Cutlass Empire, a based on the true story of a privateer who became governor of Jamaica.

The novel is a swashbuckler whose swash has long since buckled.

Washed up — literally — on a Caribbean island, Harry watches helplessly as Spaniards torture and murder. Harry determines to get revenge and make his fortune doing it.

He takes commissions from the British or French to attack Spanish shipping. But land fighting, not sea battles, are Harry’s forte.

Seeing that England needs only control a few critical islands to keep Spain from exploiting all her New World possessions, Harry goes for the kill.

In 1670, he marches his ruffians across the Isthmus of Panama and captures Panama City — months after England and Spain have penned a peace treaty.

Harry’s brilliant campaign was a criminal act.

Mason has written an historical novel with emphasis on history. The plot feels threadbare. The main characters are shallow creatures from romance novels.

If Mason had attempted a narrower story, he might have achieved a far better novel.

Cutlass Empire
F. Van Wyck Mason
Doubleday, 1949
396 pages
1949 Bestseller # 8
My Grade: C-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni