The Baltimore Canon by Thomas Archer
When Thomas Archer was a young man, he made a decision that would change the rest of his life: enrolling in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. The Baltimore Canon is the story of Thomas’s first journey aboard the ship of the same name, an antiquated yet somehow irresistibly beautiful collection of rusting steel parts. As a new officer, Thomas is forced to quickly find his bearings and assimilate into maritime culture, which, when seen from afar, can appear slightly bizarre. During the ship’s oil-bearing expedition across the Atlantic Ocean, Thomas learns more about his fellow sailors and discovers that sometimes being an officer comes with unexpected responsibilities.
Archer begins his autobiographical work by warning readers that the great majority of a ship’s voyage can often be quite tedious, regardless of what people may read about in thrillers or see at the movie theater. And though there are certainly mundane chapters in this novel – as there are in any honestly told story of one’s life – The Baltimore Canon remains an interesting look into seagoing society. Humorous and sobering anecdotes have mixed here to create a narrative that is both educational and entertaining. For example, Archer recounts the time he returned to his room to find that it had been infested by cockroaches; after trapping an exotic predatory insect – which he later nicknamed “the Geep” – and setting it loose in his room, Archer demonstrates a level of zany resourcefulness that is oftentimes necessary on a ship with limited amenities. In the novel’s epilogue, Archer writes about the difficulties he had re-assimilating to life on land, which includes a particularly memorable scene at a dinner his parents had organized in his honor. By devoting a bit more time to this chapter of his life – perhaps splitting the book between life at sea and at home – Archer might have crafted a more culturally jarring narrative.
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