The Civil War Campaigns
of David Farragut
David Farragut, the U.S. Navy's first admiral, did not roar, "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead," as his ships entered Mobile Bay. He said the equivalent, however, and Mobile was taken, like New Orleans and the Mississippi River before it. Mr. Duffy's book on Farragut's Civil War campaigns reveals that he was a serious, determined, vastly capable commander, and too unflappable to provide picturesque anecdotes. His background was unusual. His father, a sea captain from Minorca, served in the American Revolution, and that connection eventually led to the placement of the motherless son in the family of a naval officer who offered to train him for the sea. The boy was less than ten years old when he was commissioned a midshipman. He sailed off, under the eye of his surrogate father, into the War of 1812. Most of the action he encountered was off the Pacific coast of South America, where at one point he was appointed prize master of a captured vessel. At twelve years old he was commander of a ship and handled it well -- after getting the disgruntled civilian captain out of his way. That high point was followed by years of peace and stagnation, until the Civil War required efficient action against Confederate ports and the Mississippi River, and Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy put Farragut on the job. The campaign up the river was full of risk and excitement and tricky maneuvers, and the author makes the most of it. Mr. Duffy is primarily interested in fighting ships. He makes their equipment and performance and the reasons for Farragut's decisions thoroughly absorbing and understandable. He does not altogether overlook the people who worked those ships. After one battle Farragut looked at the casualties laid out on the deck and quietly wept.
Mr. Powers's novel starts in the shape of an amateur-detective thriller. The setting is a small farming village in Poland shortly after the collapse of Communist rule, where Leszek, an amiable young man, wants to know how the son of a good old friend and neighbor came to be murdered in the nearby forest. The police and civic authorities, hangovers from the old regime, are doing nothing about the killing except talk -- and Mr. Powers does a splendid imitation of soothing official gobbledygook. Leszek and the victim's enraged father begin their own investigation, and the novel becomes an exploration of the guilt, fear, and corruption that underlie the history of the town, where nothing is ever said about the disappearance of the once large Jewish population or the network of bribery and smuggling that supplanted normal business under the Communists. The novel is a serious work on the aftermath of fifty years of horror and the reactions of the people asked to confront the past that they have tried to ignore. It is also a good story, rich in action and character, with an intelligent acceptance of the fact that an indecent government can drive decent people to indecent action.