Book Review: Billy Smith Shanghaied Ace by Noël Sainsbury, Jr.
William “Billy” Smith, noted teen aviator, has been called to Australia by a wealthy banker, Mr. Clafflin whose daughter Janet was on the missing passenger liner GLORIA (sic). The banker believes that the ship was not sunk, but is stranded off course somewhere in the Solomon Islands. He has hired Billy to search the islands by seaplane. However, no sooner has Billy started preparing for the journey in Sydney than he is tricked into an ambush.
Billy finds himself shanghaied aboard the blackbirder (slave ship) PAULINE S, under the command of Captain Hammond. This is bad enough, but after the ship goes through a dangerous “white squall”, Billy is lost overboard.
By an amazing coincidence, Billy is rescued by the only other boat in these waters, a whaleboat crewed by four Tahitians and a lad slightly younger than Billy, John “Jan” White. As it happens, they are headed to Rennell Island, where the PAULINE S. was also sailing. They were passengers on the GLORIA who managed to escape when the Malay pirate Che’ Ali captured her. Jan has an aunt on board and wants to rescue her.
Billy, being a famous hero (he already has a series of books about his adventures despite being no more than eighteen, in universe!), is put in charge of the rescue effort. The small party soon learns that the blackbirder captain and pirate are in cahoots, and the GLORIA is somewhere near the dangerous island of Malaita. Billy is able to regain his seaplane, and the rescuers luckily coordinate with the one white man allowed to live on the remote Solomon Isle.
This 1934 book is part of the Great Ace series by Mr. Sainsbury. Technically, Billy is not a true ace; while he spent two years at Annapolis Naval Academy, he apparently has not shot down the requisite five enemy aircraft in formal war conditions. But other than that, he’s very much the standard boys’ adventure hero. Gray eyes, a muscular 160 pounds, expert in wrestling and cutlass fencing, and qualified as navigator and pilot of both air and sea vessels. He’s honest and upright, and makes friends easily. But he’s not perfect, I’ll discuss his one in-universe flaw in the spoilers section below.
The glaring problem with this book for modern readers is the racism. Once the Solomon Islanders come into the picture, constant mention is made of how ugly, dirty and smelly they are, as well as how savage they are, being cannibal headhunters. The “black” Melanesians are compared unfavorably to the “brown” Polynesians, and one of the villains even uses the N-word (and he’s the sympathetic villain!)
Also, for purposes of the plot, Malaita is mischaracterized. By the time this story takes place, the natives were well acquainted with the outside world and quite a few missionaries and traders lived there. After a British punitive expedition in 1927, many Malaitans converted to Christianity. A far cry from the howling wilderness populated by stupid, superstitious barbarians who can only be pacified by one eccentric butterfly collector and his mastiff Satan.
As a side note, the butterfly collector, Mr. Bailey, is named after the artist who did the covers for the Great Ace series.
There’s even a plot development where Billy dons blackface to pass as a local. Erm.
On the other hand, the sailing and flying stuff is terrific, with lots of technical detail for the air enthusiast reader.
Not recommended except as a curiosity.
SPOILERS after this video which will allow some folks from Malaita to have a voice here.
Billy Smith’s one flaw, as it turns out, is that he’s a little too willing to accept things at face value. It gets him shanghaied in the first place.
When they first pick Billy up, the Tahitians pretend to only speak beche de mer (sea cucumber) a kind of Pidgin English better known as Tok Pisin, and that Jan is their master. They are in fact able to speak American English, and are independent businessmen.
Moreover, Jan White’s full name is Janet White Clafflin, the very girl Billy was sent to rescue in the first place! She is, as she admits by way of describing “Miss Clafflin” “a bit of a tomboy” and wore male clothing to help her escape when the GLORIA was captured. She realizes when Billy describes his mission that he would never let her participate in the rescue and would insist on taking her to safety, so she pretends to be a boy.
And Billy falls for it hook, line and sinker, as does Mr. Bailey. The result is surprisingly feminist for the time period and genre, as Jan fights a shark, and gets to behave competently all the way through without ever giving herself away. It’s only when she shows up wearing a dress in the final chapter that Billy learns he’s been had. Billy does plan to scold her for unbecoming behavior, but the story mercifully ends before then.