New Book: “The Wager” by David Grann

The book cover for “The Wager,” by David Grann, shows a moody painting of a shipwreck; the boat has nearly capsized, and the sea is terribly rough.

Dear Commons Community,

I have just finished reading David Grann’s The Wager:  A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder.  Grann is the best-selling author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of  ZThe Wager is currently on The New York Times best-seller’s list and deservedly so.  It is a page-turner on the fate of The Wager and its crew in the mid-1700s. Grann provides engaging descriptions of the period, life on board a British warship, and most importantly, the crewmen.  Grann is at his best when he sketches human  behavior as captains, midshipmen, and sailors are in a fight for their lives when the their ship runs ground and they have to survive on a small island with meager food supplies.  I won’t give away too much of the plot or the ending only to say that if you enjoy tales of survival on the high seas in the 18th century, you will enjoy The Wager.

Below is a review that appeared in The New York Times.


Published April 14, 2023Updated April 24, 2023

THE WAGER: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, by David Grann

There were multiple moments while reading David Grann’s new book, “The Wager,” about an 18th-century shipwreck, when it occurred to me that the kind of nonfiction narratives The New Yorker writer has become known for share something essential with a sturdy ship. A vessel freighted with historical controversy, tangled facts and monomaniacal characters needs to be structurally sound, containing and conveying its messy cargo. It should be resilient yet nimble enough to withstand the unpredictable waters of readers’ attentions and expectations. Only an impeccable design will keep everything moving.

Whether Grann is writing about the search for a giant squid or the presidential campaign of John McCain, you get the sense that he doesn’t dare to set sail with a narrative until he feels like he has gotten the fundamental structure right. When he worked on “Killers of the Flower Moon” (2017), his superb book about a spate of murders of Osage people in the 1920s, he struggled with the welter of research he had accumulated until he read William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” for the first time. The three narrators of Faulkner’s novel helped Grann realize there could be three points of view in his own book — each section revealing another layer to the story, assembling a three-dimensional portrait from official records and what Faulkner called “a few old mouth-to-mouth tales.”

The structure of “The Wager” is simpler, though the material that Grann has to work with is again unwieldy. He sets up his story as a mystery, beginning with an old-fashioned author’s note on how, even if he did not “see firsthand the acts of deceit and murder,” he had made his way through “the participants’ conflicting, and at times warring, perspectives.”

On Jan. 28, 1742, a battered vessel carrying 30 men washed up on the shore of Brazil. The men were survivors of the H.M.S. Wager, a British man-of-war that had left England nearly a year and a half before, part of a squadron that had been tasked with capturing a Spanish galleon filled with treasure. They explained that the Wager had run aground on a rocky island off the coast of Patagonia, and recounted setting out on a boat cobbled from the wreckage that would carry them the nearly 3,000 miles to Brazil.

It’s the kind of inspiring chronicle that would make for a rousing maritime adventure. But this is a David Grann book, and so he gives us something more. Six months after the arrival of those 30 castaways in Brazil, another battered vessel came ashore, in Chile — and the three castaways on this second boat said that the men who landed in Brazil were not the brave and honorable men they pretended to be. “They were not heroes — they were mutineers.”

Aside from a typhus epidemic that delayed the squadron’s departure, the voyage of the Wager seemed to start promisingly enough. Grann presents a fleet of gleaming wood and billowing sails, a manifestation of imperial ambitions. The ships were loaded with provisions and livestock, and the men enjoyed plentiful food and camaraderie. But any journey like this was bound to be perilous. There were the obvious dangers of battle: ambushes and gunfire and wooden ships that could go up in flames. A table in the midshipmen’s quarters was dedicated to amputating limbs.

Still, at least battles conjure the possibility of victory. Actually getting to battle would be another matter entirely. Sailors’ logbooks helped Grann reconstruct the incessantly arduous journey itself. The basic act of navigation routinely introduced errors and risks. Sailors relied on “dead reckoning” — dropping a knotted line into the sea to estimate a ship’s speed and using a sandglass to estimate time — further honing (or distorting) those approximations with a dollop of intuition. And of course the weather was another source of enormous uncertainty and danger. The ships in the squadron lost sight of one another while rounding the notoriously deadly Cape Horn, with its “pulverizing” current and waves that can stretch nearly 100 feet into the sky.

But the terrors of the natural elements seem cinematic compared with the daily horrors that Grann describes. Typhus erupted again, making its way through the ships’ tight quarters as lice crawled from one seaman to another. Then the men lucky enough to survive typhus faced the prospect of another illness that turned their skin blue and made their teeth fall out. Old wounds reopened, bones that had broken and mended long ago suddenly dissolved again. Some of the men lost their minds, shaking with delirium. “It was the great enigma of the Age of Sail,” Grann writes — the ghastly disease otherwise known as scurvy. A deficiency of vitamin C killed more mariners than all other threats combined.

And it only gets more relentless from there. By the time the Wager breaks apart on some rocks and the men must fend for themselves on inhospitable terrain, you realize that the miseries they have already endured won’t prepare them for the miseries that are about to come. You see the men starving, thieving and turning on one another. The Wager’s captain, David Cheap, apparently decided that only rigid rules and brutal punishments could keep everything from falling apart — a strategy that clearly didn’t work out as planned. The castaways were saved at several points by Indigenous people, the Kawésqar and the Chono. But the Wager’s men couldn’t bring themselves to stop referring to their saviors as “savages.”

After all, the white men in this book were agents of empire. They may have turned to murder and cannibalism — or what they would obliquely call “extremities” — but the Wager’s mission assumed the righteousness of Britain’s imperial expansion, an attempt to take Spain’s colonial plunder for itself.

Grann is well aware of this, and he ends “The Wager” by drawing our attention to the bigger picture, even as the authors of the journals and books he consulted rarely depicted themselves as part of the imperial machine. Their struggle for survival consumed them; reading about their struggle for survival intrigued me — as Grann, the consummate narrative architect, must have known it would. Considering the ignominy of their cause, getting so invested in their immediate suffering elicited some momentary forgetting. “It is precisely such unthinking complicity,” Grann writes of the Wager’s men in the final pages, “that allows empires to endure.”

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