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Reviews for The Wager

by David Grann

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

A new account of the Wager Mutiny, in which a shipwrecked and starving British naval crew abandoned their captain on a desolate Patagonian island, emphasizes the extreme hardships routinely faced by eighteenth-century seafarers as well as the historical resonance of the dramatic 1741 event. On a secret mission to liberate Spanish galleons of their gold, the 28-gun HMS Wager was separated from the rest of its squadron rounding Cape Horn in a massive storm. Beset by typhus, scurvy, and navigational problems, the ship struck rocks, stranding its beleaguered crew on a remote island in Chilean Patagonia. In the months that followed, harsh conditions and meager provisions would test storied British naval discipline. Captain David Cheap, who had spent a lifetime at sea but was new in his rank, ruthlessly managed the group’s larder. A dispute with gunner John Bulkley over a risky plan to sail a makeshift craft back home through the Strait of Magellan turned violent. A few bedraggled sailors would find their way back to civilization, prompting high-stakes courts-martial and sensational accounts in the British press. Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon, 2017) vividly narrates a nearly forgotten incident with an eye for each character’s personal stakes while also reminding readers of the imperialist context prompting the misadventure.HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Best-selling Grann is a top nonfiction author, and the drama of this tale along with an in-the-works major film adaptation, reportedly to be directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, will inspire even more interest.

Publishers Weekly
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Bestseller Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon) delivers a concise and riveting account of the HMS Wager, a British man-of-war that ran aground on a barren island off the Chilean coast of Patagonia in 1741. Part of a squadron sent to capture a treasure-laden Spanish galleon during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, the Wager became separated from the other ships while rounding Cape Horn and wrecked several weeks later. The starving crew soon disintegrated into rival factions, including one led by gunner John Bulkeley, who became increasingly critical of Capt. David Cheap. Five months after they’d been marooned, Bulkeley and 80 other crew members commandeered the Wager’s longboat and two other small vessels and set sail for Brazil, abandoning Cheap and his few remaining loyalists to their fate. Fewer than half of Bulkeley’s group survived their nearly 3,000-mile journey through the Strait of Magellan and up the coast of Argentina, but he was treated as a hero, until Cheap miraculously appeared back in England and accused him of mutiny. Though the showdown between Cheap and Bulkeley is somewhat anticlimactic, Grann packs the narrative with fascinating details about life at sea—from scurvy-induced delirium to the mechanics of loading and firing a cannon—and makes excellent use of primary sources, including a firsthand account by 16-year-old midshipman John Byron, grandfather of the poet Lord Byron. Armchair adventurers will be enthralled. (Apr.)

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z returns with a rousing story of a maritime scandal. In 1741, the British vessel the Wager, pressed into service during England’s war with Spain, was shipwrecked in a storm off the coast of Patagonia while chasing a silver-laden Spanish galleon. Though initially part of a fleet, by the time of the shipwreck, the Wager stood alone, and many of its 250 crew members already had succumbed to injury, illness, starvation, or drowning. More than half survived the wreckage only to find themselves stranded on a desolate island. Drawing on a trove of firsthand accounts—logbooks, correspondence, diaries, court-martial testimony, and Admiralty and government records—Grann mounts a chilling, vibrant narrative of a grim maritime tragedy and its dramatic aftermath. Central to his populous cast of seamen are David Cheap, who, through a twist of fate, became captain of the Wager; Commodore George Anson, who had made Cheap his protégé; formidable gunner John Bulkeley; and midshipman John Byron, grandfather of the poet. Life onboard an 18th-century ship was perilous, as Grann amply shows. Threats included wild weather, enemy fire, scurvy and typhus, insurrection, and even mutiny. On the island, Cheap struggled to maintain authority as factions developed and violence erupted, until a group of survivors left—without Cheap—in rude makeshift boats. Of that group, 29 castaways later washed up on the coast of Brazil, where they spent more than two years in Spanish captivity; and three castaways, including Cheap, landed on the shores of Chile, where they, too, were held for years by the Spanish. Each group of survivors eventually returned to England, where they offered vastly different versions of what had occurred; most disturbingly, each accused the other of mutiny, a crime punishable by hanging. Recounting the tumultuous events in tense detail, Grann sets the Wager episode in the context of European imperialism as much as the wrath of the sea. A brisk, absorbing history and a no-brainer for fans of the author’s suspenseful historical thrillers. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.