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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Morning of Fire: John Kendrick's Daring American Odyssey in the Pacific by Scott Ridley

Well-researched but ultimately fails in its goal

Published by William Morrow in 2010

John Kendrick was a well-respected sailor from the Boston area during the Revolutionary War era. He was rumored to have participated in the Boston Tea Party. He captained a privateer, captured prizes and was highly regarded by political and business leaders and the men who sailed on his ships.

As America struggled to revive its foreign trade after the Revolutionary War (The United States was officially cut off from English trade) tales came to Boston about the beautiful furs available along the Northern Pacific coast of North America. Investors hired Kendrick to lead an expedition of two ships to explore the trading opportunities in the Pacific. Kendrick set off in 1787 to find new markets for American goods. He ended up visiting what is now Alaska, Washington State and British Columbia, Hawaii, China and Japan. He nearly sparked a war between Spain and England, got involved in a brutal war in Hawaii, nearly was killed by officials in Japan (if he had been discovered), survived a monsoon, suffered through the bureaucratic shenanigans of Chinese port officials and was betrayed by the captain of the second ship of his expedition.

Reading about all of that adventure makes this book sound like it would be exciting, but this book does not live up to the exciting life lived by Kendrick.

What this book does well:

-This book is extraordinarily well researched. I would imagine that Ridley laid his eyes on every known scrap of paper that mentioned Kendrick or his voyage that has survived to the modern day. He includes dispatches sent to the court of Spain and England, notes from his American employers and more.

-America's place in the geopolitical situation of the day is laid out nicely. Spain was declining, Britain was pushing to take over its role as master of the Pacific, Russia was pushing into the Northern Pacific from its Asian ports, France was floundering in the throes of the French Revolution, China was involved in trade only, Hawaii was coveted by all of the major powers as a place to refit ships in the middle of the Pacific.

What this book does poorly:

-Ridley establishes that Kendrick was the first American in the area and he compares him to Lewis and Clark and Daniel Boone. However, that is not an apt comparison. Daniel Boone and his generation of explorers directly led to the American occupation of the Ohio River Valley and the Tennessee Valley. Lewis and Clark's route to the Pacific, especially their trip up the Missouri River was, quite literally, the route taken by hundreds and later thousands of settlers within a generation or two of their trip. Kendrick's men were the first Americans to reach the Washington State area, but it was largely settled by Americans who followed Lewis and Clark's route.

-I found this book caught up in its own minutiae, and the larger goal (why Kendrick's long trip was important) was lost in the ups and downs of fur prices and blow-by-blow details of negotiations. I learned about the prices of furs in China, the nasty wars of Hawaii's various kings and how Western involvement was a factor, about how England and Spain nearly came to war over the Pacific (what Kendrick does not stress is that England and Spain nearly came to war over some thing or another many, many times while England was ascending and Spain was declining on the world stage). Spain's strategies to recapture its actual control of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys (it had the Mississippi Valley in name, but not much control in reality) were discussed. So much detail was involved that I often felt like I was slogging through the book. The telling of the story drowns in the sea of details. When Ridley pulled out of full detail mode the book was quite excellent. But then the extraneous details would start to fill the book again. I literally read dozens of histories a year and I am a history teacher. I love reading history and this book was a chore for me to read.

-Too much of the historical record has been lost. Ridley has reference after reference to what Kendrick "may have" or "probably" did. While these leaps of faith and logic all made sense, it may have been more prudent for the author to have pulled away from his devotion to detail and simply lay out the facts he had and tell the story in a broader sense rather than insisting on a detailed look at facts he really did not have.

I rate this history 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Morning of Fire.

Reviewed on May 12, 2012.

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