Though mostly known for Around the World in 80 Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne turned out almost as many potboilers as his adventurous predecessor, Alexandre Dumas, all packed with a similar sense of sprightly, puppyish movement. The Blockade Runners, set during the American civil war, is one such.
Published in 1865, after his more famous works, Verne's is a tale of love and honour that also manages to concern itself with the abolition of slavery, though with the lightest of touches. It rockets along, aided by Karen Loukes's clean-limbed translation, as fast as the ship belonging to the dashing and politically suspect (slavery isn't much of a problem for him) Captain James Playfair, the hero. He's a Scottish mercantile princeling who's on his way to make a daring venture for cotton behind southern lines, and hoping to net a sizable profit along the way.
His ship is in fact carrying a more complex cargo: Jenny Halliburtt, a girl disguised as a boy, as seems obligatory in seafaring tales. Playfair can only follow his heart and helps the girl in her quest to rescue her imprisoned father from the Confederates.
The book follows a sleek curve, which doesn't steer very far from the standard voyage and return plotline, but that's not to say it's hackneyed. It is saved from predictability and sentimentality by Verne's wit and quickness with dialogue and characterisation, and in Jenny Halliburtt it presents a heroine who does not conform to the timid norm: she stays on board ship while they are being bombarded by cannonballs and is determined in her resolution to be her father's saviour. She develops over the novella, while Playfair's bluff determination hardly changes.
Rooted in Verne's extensive geographical research, The Blockade Runners shows a man honing and flexing his talents. Weirdly, the most exciting part of the plot takes place off stage. But this lively work still cuts a steam-powered dash through the Atlantic waves.
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