The Flaming Island by Donald Barr Chidsey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a forgotten pulp novel from a now sadly overlooked author, so forgotten and overlooked that I had to add this book to Goodreads! Chidsey was a regular contributor to the pulp magazines in the 1930s, writing in a wide range of genres as many of the old pulp writers did. He spent much of his youth as a merchant seaman and wrote many stories set on the sea in various exotic locales. Later in life he earned a bit of fame as a history writer, once again focusing on the sea.
This novel is from 1959, relatively late in his fiction career as he was making the transition to nonfiction writing. It is a tale of an American demolitions expert who gets caught up in the Cuban revolution of the 1890s.
Our hero, George Heritage, thought he was going to work on a land clearance project, which shows just how clueless he is. Didn't he know there was a war on? Soon he's drafted into the revolutionary army, falls in love with a beautiful señorita, and is blowing up stuff all over the island. It's fast paced, exciting, and often funny. One interesting aspect is that the Cubans are shown in a three-dimensional, sympathetic light. The most intelligent character is black. This is rare for a novel from the 1950s (or even the 1990s). Chidsey must have learned a thing or two in his travels around the world.
As a writer myself, I can often tell when a writer is rushed or enthusiastic. Chidsey is at his best when writing about ships and the sea, and in those passages his prose rises to the level of poetry. The description of sailing into Havana at dawn is breathtaking. As was the custom with pulp writers, he was given a set word count and deadline and, like with so many pulp novels, this one feels rushed at the end with all the hero's problems getting resolved in a few short paragraphs. I can practically hear Chidsey's editor: "OK Chidsey, give me 60,000 words by the end of the month and I'll give you 500 smackers. No, I don't care what you write about as long as it's exotic and has some ships in it. You're great when you write about ships. And don't forget the beautiful foreign dames. Readers love beautiful foreign dames. Now hit that typewriter and make sure you're manuscript is on time."
Ah, for the days of the pulps!
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