With Hearts Courageous by Jon Steven Nappa

Reviewed by Susan Reimers, JD

hearts1Will people risk their lives to save those of others if they know that their families will continue to survive should their rescue efforts fail? That was the question posed by 19th century nobleman Sir William Hillary that motivated him to found the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), the maritime rescue service of Great Britain and Ireland. And that is the question that serves to frame the fictional account of Hillary’s latter life With Hearts Courageous by Jon Steven Nappa.

It is an important question and Hillary is a worthy study, even if fictionalized. Nappa begins his story just after Hillary has moved to the Isle of Man. But it is precisely because we’re starting somewhere in the middle of this man’s life that there is confusion about who and what is relevant and what is not. Nappa tells us along the way that Hillary had been married before, had children, was not in contact with his children, had traveled with a prince in his youth, but was on the Isle of Man to avoid creditors. So when Nappa suggests that we join his reverence of Hillary because Hillary had participated in a fishing fleet’s rescue, was moved by the deceaseds’ widows and families, and proceeded to advocate for the formation of what would become the RNLI, we can legitimately ask “why?” That is, “why” should we revere Hillary? Because he succeeded in forming the RNLI? Because he participated in further maritime rescues? Because he saved some lives? Because he believed that “all things are possible with courage”? Is his moral character somehow balanced? Nappa attempts a character study of the man in this historical novel, but he just doesn’t succeed in fleshing out Hillary’s character. The only facts we’re given in this novel are the same ones that are available via any Internet search engine, and they prompt the same questions. For example, Sarah was an integral character to the novel with respect to being Hillary’s “adopted daughter” and “trustee,” yet her existence in the novel is as mysterious as it was in real life. It is general knowledge that Hillary was a Quaker and yet it was not touched on in this novel. In real life, that fact may have informed much of Hillary’s life.

Hillary’s story is one of perseverance and, possibly, of resurrection, but Nappa pursues it solely as perseverance, philosophy, and reverence for his subject that takes his focus off of setting the scenes and sequencing. To his credit, Nappa can accurately describe maritime events, but other scenes are set solely by stilted dialogue. The novel’s timeline is confusing because of continuity issues. For example, in the first rescue, the child Little Mike is recovered from the water. What appears to be several decades later, Little Mike is still little, has died from Cholera, and his body is being ripped from his mother’s arms. Some chapters move slowly, and in other chapters the action moves at hyper speed. This could have been a nifty literary device if used intentionally to parallel Hillary’s story to the ocean waves, but here it merely shows Nappa’s lack of control, and the novel itself is a wreck.

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