Debrah Strait’s The Sweet Trade is no Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean romp. And that’s a very good thing.
Life in the Caribbean in the second half of the 17th Century was anything but easy: “nasty, brutish, and short” might be a better description. Not just for pirates and other sailors but for the citizens in the many coastal and island villages, cities, and towns and the soldiers assigned to protect them. Death came often, and was often violent, brutal, and painful, whether at the hands of raiders or defenders or in the jaws of thousands of ants or a single caiman.
This is the world eleven-year-old Dirk van Cortlandt is thrust into when Spanish raiders attack the island he and his family live on and kill everyone except Dirk and four of his young friends. The boys escape on a small wooden boat, hoping to sail to nearby Curaçao but instead become lost at sea. Rescued by French pirates, they’re soon sold into slavery. Dirk longs for the day he’ll be free so he can become a pirate and avenge the deaths of his and his friends’ families.
All five boys survive their seven years of often brutal treatment and hard and dangerous work, growing big, strong, and hard—emotionally as well as physically—in the process. They reunite and join a pirate crew, only to discover life there is often no easier or safer than it was as a slave. Dirk hates being told what to do by others and eventually is elected captain of a crew. (Yes, pirates elected their captains. This is one of the many historically accurate details Strait skillfully weaves in, giving the story a depth and richness not often found.)
But captaincy is no bed of roses, either, and the pressures of finding and capturing Spanish treasures, whether afloat or on shore, and the killing and death that always accompany such raids, wear on Dirk. During a visit to relatives in New York, where he meets a beautiful young cousin, he begins to think seriously about leaving the pirate life and settling down. But the dream is not to be realized anytime soon. Bad fortune leaves him in a position of having to join a flotilla, headed by famed pirate Henry Morgan, that raids Panama. The raid, while initially successful, turns into yet another disaster thanks to Morgan’s incompetence and treachery, and Dirk and his friends are left as destitute as they were when they joined the fleet. To make matters worse, Dirk has rescued a widowed young Spanish noblewoman from the ravages of the other pirates and now can’t let her go.
While there’s plenty of action and adventure in The Sweet Trade, Strait does not shrink from the violence and brutality of the time. More than an adventure story, this book is a coming-of-age story of Dirk, and to a lesser extent his friends, as they grow from pre-teens to men approaching thirty. Dirk is a well-rounded character, with loves and hates, vices and virtues, compassion and cruelty. He struggles to find and hold onto his better nature, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. He’s a character we can care about, and do.
Polished and professional, you’d never know this was Strait’s debut novel. It gives us plenty of reason to look forward to more from her. Highly recommended.