The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is an adventure tale told by someone who really didn't think her life would be much of an adventure at all. Miss Charlotte Doyle, a thirteen-year-old girl from Barrington Better School for Girls, wanted nothing more than to become a proper young lady who wears fancy hats and has fabulous hair (OK, who doesn't want that?). Once she boards a ship to America, though, she finds out that a life on the Seahawk is far more thrilling than wearing a frilly dress. Donning boys' clothing, Charlotte learns to climb the rigging and handle a knife. She also becomes involved in the thrilling machinations underway on the ship: Murder! Mutiny! Mayhem! These are not the things Charlotte learned about in school. Needless to say, this book is a bona fide page-turner – completely and utterly action-packed.
But wait! There's more. Within this tale of adventure, are many complicated, and at times totally radical, ideas. Besides being a terrific read, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle takes on the Big Questions. (Note the capitalization.) Charlotte's mutiny against Captain Jaggery is not just awesome (go Charlotte, go!), but it's also a critique of the ideologies Jaggery comes to represent: capitalism, patriarchy, and organized religion, just to name a few. In the end, Charlotte (with a little help from the Seahawk) rids the ship of both Jaggery and the oppressive systems he stands for. She's a complete subversive who challenges the Man and manages to take him down. (We warned you these were Big Ideas.)
Avi published his novel about a young-girl-turned-sailor in the 1990s, a decade when gender, class, and race (three of the book's major themes) were very hot topics. Movements such as third-wave feminism raised awareness about the problems faced by women of all races, regions, social standings, and sexual orientations. The debate over gay rights was also in full swing, as the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community was confronted with restrictive policies such as the military's implementation of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Meanwhile, the rise of multiculturalism along with policies such as Affirmative Action brought issues of race, ethnicity, and diversity onto America's center stage. Needless to say, the '90s were a politically-charged time; it's really no surprise, then, that it's also the decade that gave us the gender bending, system-challenging Miss Charlotte Doyle.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, though, is also a work of historical fiction, which means that the plot is not set in the 1990s, or even in the present day. Charlotte Doyle's story instead unfolds against the larger social upheavals of the nineteenth century. Just as in Avi's own time, the nineteenth century saw widespread resistance to oppression based upon race, class, and gender. Reform was sweeping across countries like England, and many progressive social moments were gaining momentum. These included abolitionism (the movement to ban slavery and the slave trade), class reform, aid for the poor, and the fight against the oppression of women.
The year 1832 (the summer when Charlotte makes her journey on the Seahawk) is especially worth noting, we think, because that's the year in which the Reform Act of 1832 was passed in England (also known as the Representation of the People Act 1832). This legislation changed the UK's electoral system to give voting rights to many folks who had otherwise not been represented, a victory for England's fervent reformers. It's a fitting historical backdrop, then, for a story like Charlotte's.
In sum, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle has adventure, it asks the Big Questions, and it draws connections between the good, bad, and ugly of nineteenth-century society and our own contemporary moment. The novel has long been popular in middle school and high school classrooms and was a contender for the Newberry Award. We hope it becomes one of your favorites too.
Why Should I Care?
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a story about a girl who takes on the system and wins the fight. To paraphrase Jello Biafra, lead singer of the legendary punk band The Dead Kennedys, "She fought the law, and she won." That's right, Charlotte Doyle was punk rock way before punk rock even existed.
But seriously, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a book you should care about, not only for its punk rock attitude, but because it teaches us that being different actually has big-time revolutionary possibility. Being different can change things! As an outsider, Charlotte is in a unique position to challenge Captain Jaggery and his tyrannical order. Charlotte's gender bending helps the rest of the crew on the boat see that they, too, can question their positions – as well as their leader's.
As you read the book, you should ask yourself who are the people in your life who challenge the status quo. Do you know someone that cuts against the grain? Maybe it's your single mom who works three jobs, maybe it's your kooky high school art teacher, or maybe it's the girl who sits next to you in history class who's always reading Howard Zinn. Whatever the case, these people's difference really can make a difference. They help us see that things don't always have to stay the same. They help us understand that things can change.