When you’re a little girl in the quiet suburbs of Philadelphia, adventure and the open sea aren’t exactly easy to find. Even if I didn’t dream about raising anchors and feeling the wind blow salty water into my hair, I dreamt about freedom and independence. It was an old library copy of Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle that gave me the first taste of independence, vicarious as it might be, and started me towards understanding what that independence really means.
Charlotte Doyle might be aimed towards middle-grade readers, but Avi doesn’t skimp on the action. Charlotte is the last of her family to make the move from England to America, her father having made the decision to let her finish her time at the Barrington School for Better Girls. Captain Jaggery of the Seahawk, a ship owned by the Doyles’ firm, assures Mr. Doyle that Charlotte will be accompanied by two families, and that he will care for her safety. As Charlotte discovers upon stepping onto the ship, Captain Jaggery’s promises are not exactly carried out according to plan.
I read Charlotte Doyle for the first time when I was 9, and I’ve reread it several times since then. The last time was a few years ago, however, and the distance has given me some much-needed perspective about the story, and about myself. Charlotte and I don’t have a lot in common, even discounting the gap in time periods. Before she steps onto the Seahawk, Charlotte lives a privileged life, without ever having to worry about anything beyond what she would wear the next day. It’s always interesting to step into the shoes of a character who’s so different, because they reflect back what we may not always see in ourselves.
Charlotte’s stubbornness and willingness to speak up for herself was something I admired, even when I couldn’t understand why she sometimes acted the way she did. Then again, being asked at 13 years old to spend two months on a ship with no companion but the crew–all men–might affect many of us in the same way. We don’t know that we wouldn’t be dismissive, wouldn’t be bratty, or wouldn’t be casually cruel to the people around us.
Avi uses the first-person perspective to highlight how the things Charlotte experiences on the Seahawk contribute to her development. We hear from Charlotte herself how she’s overwhelmed by the experience of being at sea, the biases she starts to recognize in herself as she interacts with the ship’s crew, and the thought process she follows throughout the book. We know her thoughts as she learns how to become a crew member, and to respect the work that they do.
I think that’s what kept me reading and rereading Charlotte Doyle as a kid. Charlotte is placed in an unfamiliar and later hostile situation, and she has to wrestle with her own deep-seated prejudices and discomfort to manage it. She makes a lot of mistakes, and hurts a lot of people, but she’s determined to make amends for those mistakes. She’s a tenacious 13-year-old girl who displays a surprising amount of mental and emotional strength, and not even a dangerous mutiny on the open seas can stop her. She doesn’t let the fear she’s been conditioned to feel in this situation prevent her from standing up for herself and the people she cares about.
The decade-plus since I first read Charlotte Doyle has definitely shown me some of its weaknesses, and the casual racism within its text. But I don’t think the inspiration and encouragement that my younger self found in those pages should be discounted, just taken hand-in-hand with the more negative aspects to form a clearer picture. Charlotte Doyle is not the “perfect” young woman–her character arc proves that there’s more to life than being a “perfect” anything. But she does have an indomitable spirit, and if young girls take nothing else from this story, I think that would be enough. She proves that it’s possible to have more strength in yourself than you might even know.