Nan Hawthorne's Reviews > The Black Banner

The Black Banner by Helen Hart
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Sep 22, 2011

really liked it
Read from September 22 to 29, 2011

Becky Baxter seizes a chance opportunity to escape her drunken mother and threat of sexual servitude to her mother's unsavory friend to take a ship bound from Bristol to the New World. Of course to do this she must masquerade as a boy named Billy. On the ship the cook stumbles across Billy's secret and seeks to take advantage of it when out of the salty blue come pirates, Captain Logan Corder and his band of mostly nice guy cutthroats. It's a pirate ship and Billy, along with other crew, are given the chance to join them or die. This begins Billy's education into piracy, a swashbuckling adventure. She grows to respect Logan and the other pirates, the more so when they moor at Paradise Island, a settlement of pirates from numerous ships and their women. Billy learns to use weapons and participates as a boarder in several captures of ships. As usually happens in these "grrlz2men" stories she learns also to enjoy the freedom of pants and lack of restrictions on her life.

Ironically when the notorious and quite historical pirate Mary Read comes onto the scene that all seems to change. Reed's own story parallels Billy's, having been a crewmember on a ship taken by pirates who accept the pirate offer to join them. Calico Jack Rackham is the pirate captain who also has aboard ship Anne Bonney, who dresses and acts like a man but does not herself conceal her gender. Mary tells Billy about how Anne, becoming entranced of "Mark Read" tries to kiss him, forcing Mary to say, in essence, "I'm a girl, so you can't kiss me." Mary sews a beautiful petticoat with her own piratical hands and tells Billy to wear it to remind herself that she is a girl. When Logan happens to walk in on her while she is doing the "I enjoy being a girl" bit, the jig is up and Billy returns to being Becky.

That is when a book full of dash and daring do gets murky for me. Typically Becky should take what she has learned about how being a girl doesn't mean you can't leap from ship to ship on a rope and wield a cutlass and stab people like any boy. Instead she seems to revert to a sort of passivity. It's not that Logan and the rest starting to treat her like a girl but that Becky accepts the coddling and, as far as I could tell, is content to be the responsibility of other people. The book lost some of its strength to me with that regression.

The Black Banner follows history rather well; showing how stricter enforcement of anti-piracy laws brings the era of romantic piracy to an end. Rackham is tried and executed, Bonney and Reed imprisoned, and back at a much-reduced Paradise Island community Corder decides to sail for home. Coming in to land near where hiss brother's farm lies, the ship wrecks on rocks, and Logan Corder is captured. Finding Logan's family Becky joins them in trying to find a way to free Logan from hanging. A happy ending complete with a marriage keeps the novel from ending on a grim note. Unfortunately Becky's minimal activity in these final sequences just cements my sense that she learned nothing but how to take care of others. Perhaps the author wanted her to become a more appropriate little girl.

With pirate stories these days you have two choices, to be realistic about the savagery of pirates or to say to heck with anything but a fun, dashing story and make them romantic and appealing. The Black Banner teeters in an effort to create a balance, Logan trying to stand for some sort of chivalric piratical ideal, offering democracy to his me, treating women gallantly, only killing those who resist being captured, and more of that sort of moral ambiguity. This takes more than a little willingness to equivocate and blur the edges of morality. Had the author made Logan less of a swashbuckling hero this could have just almost worked? Instead it felt like the standard tacking on an overlay of modern sensibilities onto another age.

The best things about this novel are its numerous colorful and endearing characters, both pirates and honest folk, its fidelity to the history of the time, and its willingness to at least approach gritty realities about death and desperation. If you can just relax and overlook the ambiguities and Becky's failure to have her lessons from being a boy stick, you will have a rip roaring good adventure.

The Black Banner is available in paperback as well as on Kindle. The publisher offered me a review copy but I chose to purchase it myself. I also, by the way, bought a copy for my neighborhood kids' reading program.

See Grrlz2Men at for more about fictional and historical women who chose to live as men.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Black Banner.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.