David Grann, the best-selling author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z, returns with another historical epic about a mystery nearly lost to time. The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder recounts the thrilling true story of the HMS Wager, a sixth-rate Royal Navy ship, and a mutiny that may or may not have taken place. It’s not an easy story to tell, as Grann freely admits in his opening author’s note, being that “the participants’ conflicting, and at times warring, perspectives” were all he had to go by. What we know for sure: in January 1742, a deteriorated boat washed up on the shores of Brazil with 30 men who claimed they were the survivors of the shipwrecked Wager—and yet six months later another vessel landed in Chile with three men who swore that those castaways were actually mutineers.
Using the crew’s log books, daily journals, and court testimony, Grann paints a gruesome portrait of the danger and uncertainty that came with being a sailor in the 18th century. In 1740, 250 men set sail from England on a secret mission. The threat of war was all around, but so was the fear of dying at sea of scurvy, typhus, or delirium. (Grann describes, in gory detail, a table used aboard the warship to amputate rotting limbs without anesthesia.) Once the crew is marooned on an island off the coast of Chilean Patagonia, he writes in stunning detail about the ghastly lengths they went to to survive, with some turning to cannibalism to fend off starvation. He describes how the men were saved by the island’s indigenous people—Kawésqar and the Chono—but, because of their imperialist upbringing, couldn’t help but refer to their saviors as “savages.” In Grann’s capable hands, The Wager is not just a suspenseful mystery at sea, it’s also a page-turning tragic farce in which there may be no heroes and villains, just mortal men suffering from delusions of grandeur. —Shannon Carlin
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