There is a lot to be said for a powerful title, and Barbara Henderson’s new novella has that and much more. The words “Black Water” capture the essence of the dark, dangerous Solway Firth smuggling scene, and captured this reader’s curiosity from the outset.
The story follows Henry, a 13-year-old apprentice exciseman, who is trying to learn the family trade, while struggling to balance the weight of his father’s expectation with his own love of the written word – and some stirrings of empathy for the smugglers they seek to detain.
When the Rosamund, a large smuggling schooner, is stranded nearby, it’s up to Henry’s father, along with Riding Officer Walter Crawford (a real-life exciseman, whose journal inspired much of this story) and later, the poet Robert Burns, to capture the crew and seize the loot. It’s a hazardous mission, which does not go to plan.
Over two-day course of the novella, Henry is propelled from one perilous situation to the next, including almost drowning, facing gunfire, and battling his way through quicksand. The tension is artfully built and enlivened by thorough research, with much of the emotional impact coming from the fact that the fiercest opposition Henry faces is from resentful locals – determined to go to any lengths to stall the excisemen.
Because it focuses on the role of the public servants who popular history so often casts as baddies, this story feels like a refreshing take on a much-explored topic, and enables us to see heroism and duty in unexpected places.
The inclusion of Robert Burns, in a small but pivotal role, brings a sprinkling of star power, and the connection he and Henry find, allows the reader to make discoveries about both the Bard, and the boy who admires him. Henry’s observation that: “he has another life, another calling, beyond any of us.” is particularly revealing.
Almost as compelling as the story itself, are the author’s notes at the end, which give insight into her sources, the lives and work of the characters, and the poetry quoted. This section is fascinating for any reader, and for a teacher or student, transforms what would have already been a good resource, into a classroom treasure!
Black Water, by Barbara Henderson (Cranachan)
This review was first published in November 2019
We’re thrilled to have been part of the blog tour for #BlackWater, and to welcome Barbara as a contributor to Roaring Reads. You can read her guest post, which gives further insight into here research on the Scottish smuggling scene, here.