The Sea Witch, A Novel (1933/2014)
Reviewed By: Editorial Board
The Editorial Board of The Columbia Review selects new books and films of interest, as well as paid submissions and sponsored reviews from authors, publishers, directors, agents and producers.
For contemporary readers immersed in modern life where a new gadget pops out of Silicon Valley every day, it is easy to forget how different life was before electricity and electronics took over every facet of life. “The Sea Witch” provides a wonderful escape from modern life — an opportunity to sail back in time to an era when one actually had to travel in order to see other parts of the worlds, when crossing the sea was a true adventure, and when men risked their lives for glory, wealth and love.
Originally written by Alexander Laing (Farrar & Rinehart, 1933 / Ballantine, 1968), the novel has been revised and edited by his son, author David Bennett Laing, presenting a wonderfully improved text that would be more palatable to the modern reader, yet diminishes nothing from the charm of the original.
“The Sea Witch” offers historic fiction at its best. Rooted in true facts surrounding one of the fastest sailing ships in history (the real-life Sea Witch still holds several sailing speed records), the novel is populated by fictional characters, who are truly genuine to their time and place. The ship itself, a swift and beautiful American clipper plowing the China tea trade and the California gold rush, is the pivot around which the lives of three brothers revolve as shipmaster (and his wife), first mate, and carpenter. Adventure, romance and—the most powerful motivation for men—greed, send them literally across the oceans. While the impetus might have been trade and profit, “The Sea Witch” whips up magic far beyond ports of call and cargo manifests. Bitter business rivalries and fiery romantic conflicts mix with the awesome forces of the sea (and human folly) to provide plenty of action and suspense, while the authenticity of foreign locales and the customs of mid-nineteenth century make for a lifelike reading experience that rivals time travel.
“The Sea Witch,” at its essence, is a classic seafaring tale, enriched to a great extent by carefully researched details of the era’s shipbuilding, finance, international trade, and the men and women of the time, driven by bold courage that’s hard to imagine in today’s world. This novel would surely delight readers who enjoy great nautical books, from the true accounts of Captain Joshua Slocum and Bernard Moitessier to the fictional adventures of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. Highly recommended!