Sea Change (1948)

Sea Change by Richard Armstrong was the 1948 Carnegie medal winner. It has been reprinted several times, the last time in the 1970s I think, but it is not currently in print. 

Cam Renton has been an apprentice seaman for a year when he arrives to join the crew of the Langdale, a cargo ship heading for the Caribean. Because he is dissatisfied with the progress of his training, he asks the Mate for assignment to one of the night watches. The Mate gives him short shrift, and while Cam is rankling under a sense of injustice during the outward voyage, the two are at odds.

When they reach the Caribbean, Cam takes a rare opportunity to go ashore. He and his bunkmate Rusty find themselves in the local prison after a misunderstanding. Cam executes a daring escape, but the captain already has the matter well in hand. The captain manages to make Cam understand that he has been getting excellent training in seamanship under the Mate. From this point on, Cam starts to work and study in earnest, and his knowledge of celestial navigation is put to use when he becomes part of a skeleton crew aboard a salvaged ship which is successfully brought back to England.

As indicated by the subtitle, this is ‘a novel for boys’; the cast is all-male, and there are no references to any females, not even any family back at home. Given the historical setting and the milieu of the Merchant Navy vessel, the all-male environment is realistic and historically correct. As a female reader, I don’t mind reading about the male sex, but in this case, the specificity of the subtitle grates – this is for boys only. As a result, I doubt if I would have picked up the book to read if it hadn’t been for this challenge. We no longer signal quite so explicitly that a book is aimed at a specific sex, and I doubt a modern publisher would get away with such a subtitle today. However, there are plenty of other ways current publishers try to signal to a gender-specific audience. I feel that this has the same (detrimental) effect. It, subconsciously or consciously, checks what the reader picks up to read and thereby stops the reader from experiencing a different consciousness and space, surely one of the chief purposes of literature. Whether it’s the outdated mode of specifying it in writing or signalling it with colours and (the presence or absence of) glimmer, I am dead against it.  

On a positive note, it is written by somebody who clearly knew and loved life at sea. In fact, Richard Armstrong sailed in the Merchant Service for 17 years, and his books are all very authentic representations of his experience. In Sea Change he describes life aboard a coal-fired steam engine ship in realistic and factual detail. From a literary history perspective, it appears the adventure story of earlier seafaring books about adolescent boys gives way to a more realistic novel type. In a way, it is also a career book; like ‘the Sue Barton’ books about nursing, Sea Change provides a lot of details about the apprenticeship workings of the Merchant Navy. It praises hard work, the benefits of experience and the necessity of following orders. In ‘Carnegie Boys: 70 years of Boyhood in Fiction’, Michele Gill has suggested that the masculine values and the focus on maintaining the status quo within a hierarchy described in Sea Change resonated strongly in a society which was recovering from the upheaval of a world war.

In my experience, books about sailing are like pony books; full of detail about the subject matter at hand, with the narrative arch almost entirely subservient to the detail. This can be observed in the Aubrey–Maturin series, in the Hornblower books, even in the early Swallows and Amazon books. Sea Change is like this. For me, though, unlike pony books, it takes a more sustained interest in sailing than I can bring forth.  

I found Sea Change well written and historically interesting. I even found myself interested in the details about how cargo is taken on board, stowed and delivered at the other end. But in contrast to Keith Barker (1998) who found it “still provides a great deal of excitement”, the gender-specific signalling and amount of detail about sailing did not do it for me. For me, it is a novel that is left in the past, both in terms of gender expectation and in terms of the life it describes. 3 out of 10.

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