Peace Corps Writers

The Odyssey of Mary B

The Odyssey of Mary B
A True Tale
by John Durand (Philippines 1962–64)
Puzzlebox Press
September 2004
499 pages

Reviewed by Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 1962–64)

THIS BOOK IS BASED ON nine years in the life of Mary B (with the following surnames — Broad, Braud, Brand and later Mrs. Bryant). The storyPrinter friendly version begins in 1785 when Mary is witness to or possibly a participant in an assault and robbery. In any case, she is arrested, jailed, later convicted to seven years’ imprisonment (1785), and then sent (1787) to Australia as part of the first settlement of convicts in that country. In 1791, Mary, her two small children, her convict husband and seven others “requisition” an open boat and escape the struggling settlement, sailing to Kupang (Timor) where those who survive the trip are sent as prisoners back to England to complete their sentences — finally being released and pardoned in 1793.
     If you enjoyed the film “Master and Commander” you will enjoy this book. While just one page short of a ream, the story moves right along. The writing is straight-forward and (except for the 57 words I attempted to look up in my dictionary) easily understood. The unfamiliar words would appear to be part of the vocabulary of late 18th century England and heavily influenced by nautical terms (hulk, drogue anchored, thwart, payed, wale, strakes, choles, taffrail, orlop, coaming, scoot, lug sailed). Terms like clod pates, grog blossoms, noddy and bufflehead might have been resurrected for the recent election campaign where we were swingled by puncheons, tierces and firkins of huggermugger by fish eyed, minikin lags who should have been dressed in mobcaps and kersey, bound in bilboes, loaded in tumbrels, fed caudle and washed with lixivium.
     The author does a good job of recreating the life and environment of the late 18th century. The awful conditions in the prisons and convict ships are described; this is followed by the details of shipboard life during the voyage from England to the Canary Islands to Rio to Cape Town and finally Australia where the first colony based on convict labor was founded in the vicinity of present day Sydney. Durand vividly describes the length of and privation during the various legs of the journey. He makes us think of the complexities of establishing a functional, self-sustaining community on land that was neither well-suited to grazing animals nor to cultivation of grains and other food stuffs (presumably better adapted to the British climate) with a criminal population showing little motivation and not much history of personal success. As supply ships are lost, damaged or delayed in reaching the settlement, rations are reduced again and again. Hunger, disease, death, harsh sentences for crimes, aged convicts unable to work and hostile indigenes take an enormous toll on the settlers. Conditions do not appear to have been much different for either the sailors and marines or the convicts.
     While the characters are based on actual people and the events are grounded in historical facts, it is not clear to me how much the author has created. I would have found it enlightening for a preface or afterward to describe how much is fact and how much is “creation” or fiction. Or a list of references or sources or recommendations for further reading would be useful to the reader who is not an historian and who might want to know more.
     This story would make the basis for an entertaining action movie — there are a few central characters, plenty of blood and gore, many forms of suffering, sex and various sexual orientations, executions, dreams, nightmares and flashbacks. With historical connections to James Boswell, Captain Bligh, Bounty mutineers and survivors, Mary B and her surviving friends lead naturally to a sequel — Odyssey II or The Further Adventures of Mary B (only partially tongue in cheek).
    I would take an exception to comments on page 487 regarding Mary B’s surname. The reproduction of the original record of Mary’s marriage to Will Bryant convinces me that “u” and “n” are different on this page of the document and Mary’s last name is clearly spelled as Braud not Brand. Genealogists are always cautioned on such matters.
     With more careful proofreading a number of missing articles and prepositions might have been found and a few awkward constructions corrected. The “Notes” on page 499 which translate phrases or document text and quotations have incorrect page references.
    All in all, this is a good read — provocative of further thought and sympathetic to the characters involved. I’d highly recommend it.
Wayne Handlos earned a Ph.D. in Botany at Cornell after his Peace Corps tour and taught at the university level in New Jersey, Zambia, Botswana and Malawi, then owned a florist shop and nursery in Minnesota. Now retired, he is gardening and writing in California.
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