As long as piracy has existed, it has been shrouded in myth, legend and rumor, which compromises the reliability of primary texts describing its major figures. Author Katherine Howe tackles this historical pitfall in her newest novel, A True Account.
Hannah Masury, nicknamed “Hannah Misery” by the clientele at the waterfront inn where she works in colonial Boston, has a small life. As an orphan and a girl, she doesn’t possess much in the way of prospects. When, on a balmy June morning in 1726, Hannah witnesses the hanging of a pirate named William Fly, something breaks open in her. In a matter of hours, a combination of coincidence and terrible timing leads to Hannah running for her life. With nowhere to turn, she seeks refuge aboard the ship of infamous pirate Edward Low, in disguise as a cabin boy.
Meanwhile, in 1930s Cambridge, a bright-eyed freshman named Kay brings Dr. Marian Beresford a tattered manuscript that claims to be a true account of the adventures of one Hannah Masury. Marian almost immediately dismisses it, but her initial skepticism gives way to a guarded curiosity. Could the manuscript be genuine? If it is, did Hannah intentionally alter details to hide something? And if she did . . . what exactly is waiting to be unearthed?
Using dual narratives and timelines to create a work of metafiction, Howe examines the contradictory tales of the real Edward Low through the lenses of Hannah and Marian. Conceptually, the idea is fascinating, though Hannah’s narrative of transformation is the more interesting and better constructed of the two. Too often, Marian teeters on the edge between character and device, and her sections can veer into a juvenile tone. In contrast, the use of a diaristic narrative to tell Hannah’s story invites readers to feel the rush of clandestine discovery alongside Marian and Kay.
While the novel might have been stronger with Hannah’s voice alone, her half of the story is too compelling to be overshadowed. Readers who found their childhood love of pirates rekindled by the HBO superhit “Our Flag Means Death” (which involves other real-life pirates such as Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet and Calico Jack) will be enamored with Howe’s piratical retelling in which the heroes are as unlikely as buried treasure itself.