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Notable New Books

Jan 1, 2003

Before the Wind

Memoir of a Sea Captain

by Charles Tyng

edited by Susan Fels After a successful career as a merchant sailing ship captain, Charles Tyng sat down in his august retirement and recorded memories of his service on the sea in the early 19th century. Now, nearly 130 years later, his great-great granddaughter Susan Fels has gathered and edited the material into a fascinating tale of a man's adventures in a world that was still wild and extraordinarily exotic.

Tyng recorded little about his adventures at sea; rather he chose to describe the characters with whom he conducted business while in sundry, unusual ports.

For example, he recounted the loss in Canton of a crewmemberexecuted by the local government in an eye-for-an-eye exchange over the accidental death of a dockworker; we learn of his purchase of a mummified mermaid in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), a shrunken figure about three-feet tall that eventually was toured around the U.S. as a sideshow attraction; and he detailed countless social evenings spent practicing hundreds of now-lost local customs.

The book does not seem dated at all. Tyng's understated style, which brings to life adventures both ridiculous and dire, gives one the feeling of reading an exceptional modern novel.

Viking/Penguin Putnam, New York; 800-526-0275; 270 pages; $24.95.

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