[Here's the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander's non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the "Lloyd Alexander" tag.]
Lloyd Alexander wanted to like Aaron Lopez; the fact that he couldn’t is hardly his fault. In The Flagship Hope, his second novel for children and his second novel in a series “designed to take young people on an adventurous expedition into the realms of Jewish experience,” Alexander spins a highly fictionalized account of the wealthiest merchant in 18th-century Rhode Island. Published in 1960, four years before the first Prydain novel, The Flagship Hope shows what happens when an author is given a story he simply cannot make his own.
The novel begins in Lisbon in 1752, a ghetto of “fruit, spilled wine, and poverty,” as Alexander sketches the history of the Marranos, Portuguese Jews who were forcibly baptized but who practiced their religion in secret for centuries. When 21-year-old Duarte Lopez presses his luck with the authorities, he’s forced to flee to Rhode Island, where he finds a welcoming Jewish community in Newport and a wealth of opportunity. “This is a new world,” his brother assures him, “but you are not alone in it.”
Free to take a Jewish name, Aaron Lopez becomes a shipping magnate and a philanthropist. He lays the cornerstone of Newport’s first synagogue, he endows the town library with books, and he pays for the passage of Jewish refugees after a Portuguese earthquake. His flagship, the Hope, becomes the symbol of the freedom he never enjoyed in Lisbon, and Alexander portrays him as a perceptive man with a poetic soul:
As Aaron looked with satisfaction and thankfulness on the results of his work his thoughts returned to the day, long before, when he and Abigail stood by the ship railing and he pointed out a distant whale. Then, the whale, the leviathan of the deep, had meant all of the New World to him. He had vowed to make a hook to capture it. Had he now, at last, caught the great creature?
As Aaron Lopez courts his wife, speaks fondly of books, and faces harassment by royal agents, Alexander makes him eminently likable. But throughout The Flagship Hope, the nature of Lopez’s business remains vague. Lopez was indeed one of the great merchants of 18th-century New England, and while Alexander specifically mentions his investments in spermaceti candles and rum, he alludes only vaguely to other aspects of his “West Indian trade.” Therein lies the main problem with The Flagship Hope: it never mentions Lopez’s involvement in the slave trade.
Lopez’s outfitting of slave ships is no secret; historians have documented it, and much is made of it on antisemitic Web sites (to which I will not link). Readers of The Flagship Hope who know something about the real Aaron Lopez are bound to approach this issue with varying degrees of sensitivity to historical context that may temper their disappointment or anger. Unfortunately, readers who know Aaron Lopez only through Alexander’s novel aren’t given a chance to determine how much less they might have liked the man. Strangely, Alexander casts Lopez as a freedom fighter who justifies his own reluctance to fight in the Revolutionary War:
And what of liberty? Once Aaron had reproached himself for not taking up a musket. Now he saw clearly that all who worked for freedom, to the full measure of their means, even those who could offer only their suffering, had the proud right to call themselves her children. As Aaron looked across the icy field, he knew that liberty had many sons.
Alexander never saw even his worst characters as inhuman or monstrous, and his task in The Flagship Hope is, of course, to focus on Lopez’s experience as an immigrant, merchant, and patriot. But when a hasty epilogue documents Lopez’s premature death in quicksand at the age of 50, Alexander offers no praise, only the enigmatic graveside prayers of friends and family to “hear the voice of Aaron.” He seems relieved to be rid of a figure whose life story is more informative than it is inspirational, and I can’t really blame him. After enjoying the story of Alexander’s previous Jewish hero, August Bondi, and his principled fight against slavery, a novel about an 18th-century merchant that never mentions the slave trade is a strange and uncomfortable read.