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Books: Cheerful Yarns

2 minute read

DOCTOR DOGBODY’S LEG—James Norman Hall—Little, Brown ($2.50).

The celebrated tales of Baron Munchausen (published in 1785) are excellent and resourceful lies, but they lack conviviality. This could never be said of the stories of F. Dogbody, Surgeon, late of His Majesty’s Navy, who passed his evenings after 1817 in the Cheerful Tortoise, Will Tunn Prop., Portsmouth. Doctor Dogbody’s stories concerning his peg leg and how he acquired it were told over fine Port Royal rum to a circle of old seamen like himself, fully able to check his reminiscences of ships, battles, commanders. Such was the Doctor’s art and agility that nobody ever caught him out, except in the trifling detail that he never lost his leg the same way twice.

During 50 years at sea the Doctor fought, or rather butchered, at Cape Saint Vincent, Copenhagen, Trafalgar, Rochefort and many another action, most of which he was moved to describe in the course of telling about his leg. He sailed for prizes from the West Indies station during the American Revolution, he shipped on a slaver, he was captured by the Mounseers (on that occasion contriving to be the only man ever guillotined at the knee). His modest knowledge of physic was of assistance to the great Franklin, the great Linnaeus, and Catherine the Great, who conceived a dangerous gratitude for him after he removed her stone.

James Norman Hall, who collaborated with Charles Nordhoff on the memorable Bounty books (Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, Pitcairn’sIsland), has struck off a happy character in his bland, blue-eyed old surgeon. If its 18th-Century flavor is not distinguished, neither is it strained, and the same goes for Warren Chappell’s pen-&-ink illustrations. Now 53, with a son of 14, lean Norman Hall still lives at Papeete, Tahiti, where he and Nordhoff went to be at peace after fighting through the last war. Tahiti being a French possession, their remoteness from the modern world is no longer what it used to be.

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