The Happy Parrot (United States of America)

HappyParrotWrongCoverby Robert W. Chambers

Published: 1931

Please note this is NOT the correct cover. I still  have to download the photo I took of my red edition with gold lettering.

I was immediately captivated by the charming pen-and-ink drawings of Norman Price in this very good, first edition. I was charmed by the book’s lush red cover embossed with a gold sailing ship. The pages look to be hand-cut. Though I never heard of Robert Chambers before, he apparently churned out books like MacDonald’s churns out hamburgers: Maids of Paradise, The Red Republic, Barbarians, The Crimson Tide…

THE BOOK: So The Happy Parrot is a ship, which our young hero quickly finds out is a slaver. But that doesn’t bother him unduly, since he knows that most slaves are happy as long as they are well-treated. (WTF?! Was my first thought.) But wait, it gets better. I learned a lot by reading this novel. First, I learned about the Jeffersonian period in American history. Second, I learned about racial attitudes in the 1930s in general and in the writer in particular.

A SHOCKING SURPRISE: The hero and heroine (who disguises herself as the ship’s male cook) sail to Africa from Georgia. Why? Because Florida is not part of the U.S. It’s Spanish territory, and the laws are different. Whoa. I forgot about that.

THE FIRST LINE: Here’s the first line of the novel, the one which sucked me in: “If the President of the United States had not been a poltroon, he behaved like one.

“Because the English stopped our ships and refused us permission to trade on the high seas, and because the French did likewise, Mr. Jefferson and a cowardly Congress forbade our ships to stir outside our own ports lest the English or French seize them and presently drive us into war. This was called an embargo. Commerce instantly sickened and died; a seafaring nation lay strangled by its own anchor chains.

(Excuse me, a seafaring nation? We’re huge! We can grow/make everything we need right here. Can’t we?)

“‘If you trade with France or her allies without our permission, we seize you!’ growled old England.”

“‘If you trade with England or her allies we seize you,” warned France.

“‘Very well,” replied Mr. Jefferson, “Just for that we won’t trade with either of you and that is going to mortify and annoy you.”

“England, intent on murdering our commerce, grinned her lion’s grin. France, bent on England’s ruin, snarled at us, watching our ships rot at their docks….'”

BOOK RATING: Three casks of rum from Barbados. One has a dead pirate pickled in it.

In some ways I enjoyed the book very much; in others I was quite disturbed by it. The hero has no problems with the N-word…He justifies his trading in Black Ivory because he can’t make a living in the usual seafaring way and says that “the value of niggers is falling in a glutted market and the Southerners desire to maintain prices. …Niggers, like rabbits, could become pests.” And he repeatedly refers to the captured Africans speaking among themselves as “qua-qua gabble” because it sounds like nonsense to him.

Ugh. Extremely distasteful.

Nonetheless, the story was entertaining, the heroine feisty and defiant although I didn’t believe the love story because the characters were rather cardboard. The adventure bits were exciting and I learned something about different types of ships and warfare at sea, not to mention the opposition to Thomas Jefferson’s policies. I guess I assumed everybody back in the days of Washington and Jefferson loved them as we revere them today. Not so. I just wish the author could have spent some time as a slave so he could have given his narrator a better understanding of the saddest and most egregious human rights violation that can exist in our world. Double ugh.

I have to agree with Frederic Taber Cooper, who comments on Wikipedia that:  “So much of Mr Chambers’s work exasperates, because we feel that he might so easily have made it better.” Nonetheless, I saw absolutely no criticism regarding racism in his biography…I guess it was expected of writers of that time period. He started writing in 1894, not so long after the American Civil War–which may be part of the problem–he was born in 1865–and he actually died 2 years after writing The Happy Parrot. Chambers managed to publish about 10 books after he died, thanks to his wife Elsie. One wonders if she was actually doing part of the writing all along.

The book In Secret was a best-seller in 1919. I found a modern review of it which says that “to Chambers, at this time, the Germans are truly subhuman entities, bestial creatures who deserve to be snuffed out en masse, preferably by gassing them, soldiers and civilians both, in their underground installations. This is all a
bit distasteful…” Check!

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