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The Story of Jack Ballister's Fortunes

Howard Pyle

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    I am a huge fan of Howard Pyle, not only of his beautiful art and illustrations, but of his historical and legendary novels. From what I have read, his focus seemed to be in three areas: medieval, especially the King Arthur legends, of which he wrote a set of four books; American history; and pirates. He also wrote several collections of short stories for young children. The first book of his I read was a collection of pirate stories called The Book of Pirates. One of the stories came from this present novel. I was happy to find it on Project Gutenberg, because it is not one of Pyle's better known works. There is almost nothing about it anywhere, including Wikipedia and even Goodreads. I was excited to make it my 2019 contribution to the Howard Pyle Index Page, where you may find all my reviews of his works. You can also find additional information about Pyle at Wikipedia.
    I have to say, though, I didn't love this book as much as I thought I would, and I am not sure why. I realize Pyle's books were intended for children, and this would definitely have qualified as a "boy book" such as Robert Louis Stevenson would have written. In fact, it is very similar to Kidnapped in many ways. However, it did get more exciting after Jack escapes, but even the ending is kind of, well, missing something.
    Perhaps it is because, after reading the King Arthur set, I had set my expectations too high. In any case, I certainly would never discourage anyone from reading this one, because it contains a lot of historical tidbits from the early 1700s along the American east coast, particularly Virginia and the Carolinas. And one of the main characters is likely the most familiar pirate to many people, that being Blackbeard, or Edward Teach. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
    The story begins with life in Virginia, where African slaves are not considered "intelligent" enough to do anything but the rudest labor, plus they cannot speak English very well. I have to remark here that one of the things I found disturbing about this book was Pyle's insulting attitude towards these slaves. He wrote this as a children's book, and I would think a more respectful commentary towards them would have been in order, especially in 1895, when America was trying to unify the country after the war. Pyle was from Delaware, by the way, hardly the deep south.
    In any case, "white slaves" began to be imported from England. And keep in mind, this was set in 1719 and before, so America was still British property. In most cases, the people agreed to be slaves for a given number of years to pay for their passage. The ones who agreed to it were the very poor, or those in debt or criminals desperate to start a new life, but hardly the cream of the crop immigrants. But on certain occasions, people who did not agree to be "white slaves" were kidnapped and sent over anyways. The merchants turned a blind eye, even when they knew they were shipping these people illegally.
    We then go back in history, when Jack Ballister's father, who came from a wealthy family, was ostracized by his family for marrying Anne Tipton. It was actually Ballister who broke off with the family, more than vice versa. He was a vicar, and taught Jack Latin and Greek, but Jack remembers little else, and certainly was not close to his father. When he became an orphan, he was sent to live with his mother's brother, even though the Ballister family had forgiven his father, and he had been left a fortune, which he refused. Therefore, upon his father's death, Jack was destined to live with the cruel and shady character, Hezekiah Tipton, who was also a merchant for shipping slaves.
     Jack is sixteen when the present story begins. having lived with his uncle now for two years. He is bored and rather lazy, plus neglected and not supplied properly for his needs by his miserly uncle. He spends time at the harbor. He meets a man who will sell him a nice boat for twenty pounds. Jack says he has no money, but he has recently become friends with a local attorney, Roger Burton, who is also in touch with Jack's other uncle, Sir Henry Ballister, who very much wants to help Jack. Burton advises Jack to first go to Hezekiah and ask for the money, however. Hezekiah, who is actually wealthy, but stingy, flatly refuses, and becomes concerned when he learns that Jack has been asking Burton questions, and that his uncle Sir Henry Ballister is interested in the boy.
    When it comes time to ship the next load of "redemptioners," Tipton sees to it that Jack is on that boat. When he puts up a fight, he is nearly killed, and it takes him a while to recover. By that time they are halfway to America. Jack eventually accepts his destiny and becomes friends with Christian Dred, who is a pirate, and with whom Jack will later become even closer acquainted.
    All Jack's attempts to speak the truth about his kidnapping go unheeded, not because they don't believe him but because they don't care. Those in power, for the most part have not yet developed a sense of law or ethics in this still rather wild settlement called America. Many still haven't, as we here in 2019 are painfully aware. Jack is sold to the wealthy landowner, Colonel Birchall Parker, who has a beautiful daughter, Eleanor, and has also had a son murdered by pirates. We shall find out more on that later. Birchall's brother, Richard, is a bitter ne'er-do-well, because his inheritance was only a relatively small piece of land called the Roost. But he is also a compulsive gambler, drinker, and associate of pirates, Blackbeard to be specific.
    Now, it seems everyone is quite aware of Blackbeard. In fact, he had been granted pardon, but that did not stop his pirating, due to the fact that local politicians and other wealthy and powerful people all along the coast benefited from his theft. Guess that hasn't changed either. Anyways, after Jack is purchased, Richard requests him of his brother.
    Jack's stay at the Roost isn't terrible, but it turns out to be short and mostly unmemorable. He makes friends with some of the other servants. Meanwhile, he becomes aware that his master suffers from massive gambling debts, and one of his debt-collectors is Blackbeard. He is being patient, but there comes a time when he demands his pay. Richard, in desperation, writes to his brother for help. The Colonel refuses because his brother is so irresponsible. When Blackbeard once again returns on the appointed date for his money, Parker tells him straight out he can't get it and is too deep in debt. But he has a plan, and that plan is to kidnap his niece Eleanor, then demand a ransom. Jack is not really aware of all this yet.
    But meanwhile, Parker goes on long trips, and on a certain day, Jack and one of the other workers take a hunting trip. The housekeeper, Mrs. Pitcher, warns him he will get beaten if his master returns to find him gone. He is assured Parker will be away for a while. But he is not, and when Jack returns, he is livid and drunk. He tries to beat him, but Jack has had about enough of slavery, especially since he is a kidnapped gentleman. He, in turn, beats up Parker. Finally Parker orders his men to lock Jack up until morning, when he plans to beat him to death.
    But Mrs. Pitcher takes pity and releases him. Off he goes in a boat, and meets up with none other than Blackbeard, who knows who he is. Still, he allows him to join his band. It is at this point that they plan to kidnap Mistress Parker. By listening in, he realizes his former master orchestrated the kidnapping. And he also meets up with his friend, Chris Dred, who is one of Blackbeard's men.
    Meanwhile, Roger Burton in England wonders what has happened to Jack, and so does Jack's uncle, Sir Henry. They believe he has been kidnapped and sent to America, and suspect Hezekiah played a role. Sir Henry has asked Burton to investigate, and so he summons Mr. Tipton. He questions him but does not threaten, yet Hezekiah does feel threatened, so much that shortly afterwards, Burton is attacked while walking home at night and left for dead.
    Meanwhile, though Jack is not a part of it, Eleanor is kidnapped, though not harmed and treated like a lady. The pirates have no intentions of hurting her, they just wanted the ransom. But things do not turn out as planned. Her father, the Colonel becomes very ill, and nothing is done to rescue his daughter. A message is sent to Richard Parker, as planned, by the colonial secretary, Mr. Knight, who becomes part of the game and expects payment, too. When he comes with the drafted letter and demands five pounds to carry it, Blackbeard is drunk. This is the night he also shoots his mate, Israel Hands, in the knee, for the fun of it, putting him out of commission for a long time. By the way, he, too was a real person, connected with Blackbeard, and he also appeared in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Knight delivers the letter, but apparently Parker does not deliver it to his brother, because he is so sick, perhaps. Therefore everyone is just waiting and waiting, while poor Eleanor is wasting away in dismay.
    As she grows weaker, Jack, who is falling in love with her, becomes terribly worried. He wants to help her escape, and when Dred agrees and says he will help, they take off then and there in a boat. And here is where the story gets really exciting, as they are pursued by Blackbeard and his crew. So that's all I will say, and will leave it to you to find out what happens. Since it is a "boy book," if you have a young son or grandson, they would especially enjoy the story. And you will, too. It is not a great book, but it is still a good one and worth reading.
    Here is more information on Blackbeard, with a link to Israel Hands.


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