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james fenimore cooper - jack tier or the florida reef

1848 sea adventure tale, with an eye on the US's war with Mexico

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"Sailors isn't so apt to pray ... as they ought to be. Women for prayers, and men for work"

  • Nov 1, 2010



JACK TIER or THE FLORIDA REEF begins in late winter or early spring of 1848. The war with Mexico will soon end in decisive victory for the smaller forces of the U.S. Army. Meanwhile the U. S. Navy is heavily engaged in blockading the long Mexican Caribbean coastline. Not every coastal mile is blocked, but the major arteries and choke points in and out of the Caribbean Sea are effectively under U.S. control.   ***   

This is the story of an aristocratic Mexican patriot, Don Juan Montefalderon y Castro, and American traitor Captain Stephen Spike. As novel begins Spike sails from Manhattan his ancient wooden ship, the Molly Swash to rendezvous with Don Juan at a lighthouse in the Dry Tortugas. This lies on the two hundred mile long Florida Reef, of which Key West is also a part.  ***
Ostensibly the Molly Swash is carrying barrels of flour to Key West to sell to suppliers to the American forces in Mexico. In reality, each flour barrel also contains a waterproofed keg of gunpowder. Captain Spike hopes not only to sell the barrels but also his own ship to the Mexican government for use against the USA.   ***  

Traveling aboard the Molly Swath from New York are 18 year old Miss Rose Budd and her uncle's widow, Mrs Budd, who has raised Rose. Already in love with Rose, the Swath's first mate, handsome young Henry (Harry) Mulford. Mulford suspects Captain Spike of smuggling but not of treachery. ***

As the ship sails out from Manhattan to go to sea, she stops to pick up a short little sailor who hails her from a small boat, Jack Tier. Jack is soon put in charge (as a subordinate to Afro-American Josh, the steward, of the sleeping quarters of the two ladies and their Irish maid, Bridget Noon. Captain Spike has invited Mrs Budd and Rose to take a sea voyage to cure Rose of an ailment she does not have, but really to marry the beautiful young heiress and to retrieve his sagging fortunes.   ***   

Not yet even out of New York waters, the Molly Swash is pursued for no obvious reason by a U.S. man of war, the Poughkeepsie. The pursuit continues into the Caribbean. Eventually pursuer and pursued will come together in the Dry Tortugas at the lighthouse.   ***

Meanwhile time moves on. By April 1848 it is clear that Mexico will soon sign a treaty of peace with the USA. Harry Mulford and Rose Budd have become engaged. Harry has proof that Captain Spike is a traitor and hopes to be rescued by the USS Poughkeepsie, so that he and Rose can be married by the chaplain aboard. Ungainly Jack Tier has become an intimate friend of Mrs Budd, Miss Budd and maid Bridget, to the considerable surprise of Harry Mulford.  ***  

A sudden storm has complicated the lives of those aboard the Molly Swath while sinking the nearby Mexican ship whose crew has captured the light house crew. There are chases, encounters with sharks, a stranding of the three women, Harry and Jack Tier on the upended but floating Mexican ship, more chases, escapes and adventures.   ***  

On the philosophical and political side author Fenimore Cooper cautions the USA not to give in to hubris and try (in vain) to occupy and retain all of Mexico (in the end the USA bought New Mexico and California for $15 million). Cooper also argues that man's apparently successful wars depend entirely on God's tolerance of the evil involved in imperialism. There is a heavy dose of religion throughout JACK TIER. Harry begins as conventionally Christian, but prays more and more as he encounters ever new challenges. After Harry has successfully swum through sharks and later been left to die by Captain Spike on a reef, he does pray more, but never as much as his fiancee Rose hopes. Jack Tier explains things to her:


"Sailors isn't so apt to pray, Miss Rose; not as apt as they ought to be. Women for prayers, and men for work" (Vol I. Ch. II).


A profound mystery of personal identity is also probed: who is this curious little waddling man Jack Tier? What is his relation from of old with Captain Stephen Spike? This overconfident reader guessed wrong. The final identification is one of the greatest surprises in American literature.  The book is worth reading simply as a puzzle to be solved: who is Jack Tier?   -OOO-  

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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #6
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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