Kingston By Starlight by Christopher John Farley (Three Rivers), 330 pages, $21 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Trained on Hollywood melodramas, those bodice-ripper extravaganzas, I always envisioned female pirates as red-lipped Jane Russell types in off-the-shoulder sailcloth blouses, pining after things they’re doomed to suffer without.
History tells a different story. Anne Bonny, a female pirate renowned for her fighting skills and fearlessness in the early 18th century, made a legend of herself not by baring it all, but by binding it.
Dressed as a man, she sailed with some of the most daring pirate crews of the age, and embarked on a lesbian affair with fellow cross-dressing pirate Mary Read. The pair became infamous from Spanishtown, Jamaica, to San Francisco.
In Kingston By Starlight, Christopher John Farley’s protagonist Anne Bonny and her mother are forced to leave Ireland .While they are on a slave ship heading to America, an African slave is assaulted. Bonny’s mother intervenes and is killed for the offense.
The young orphaned Bonny arrives in America’s so-called promised land only to be hit with racial taunts because of her tawny skin, and so she flees to the West Indies to begin anew.
Rejecting life as a prostitute, she dresses as a man, adjusts her voice, spends months observing the ways of sailors and finds herself a place on a ship.
Reading about the women pirates’ is great fun, but sometimes Farley’s run-on adjectives make the rich writing a bit precious. Nonetheless, he captures Bonny’s character without being sensational, creating a strong female hero who gets what she wants without compromise, or a man.
Most compelling about this novel is its depiction of the slave trade in the West Indies, a cruel and divisive operation of early capitalism. Bonny, oppressed and disguised, is a fine lens through which to view this brutality.