The Wager: Book summary and reviews of The Wager by David Grann

The Wager

A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder

by David Grann

The Wager by David Grann X
The Wager by David Grann
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Book Summary

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon, a page-turning story of shipwreck, survival, and savagery, culminating in a court martial that reveals a shocking truth. The powerful narrative reveals the deeper meaning of the events on The Wager, showing that it was not only the captain and crew who ended up on trial, but the very idea of empire.

On January 28, 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil. Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell. They were survivors of His Majesty's Ship the Wager, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain. While the Wager had been chasing a Spanish treasure-filled galleon known as "the prize of all the oceans," it had wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. The men, after being marooned for months and facing starvation, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing nearly 3,000 miles of storm-wracked seas. They were greeted as heroes.

But then ... six months later, another, even more decrepit craft landed on the coast of Chile. This boat contained just three castaways, and they told a very different story. The thirty sailors who landed in Brazil were not heroes – they were mutineers. The first group responded with countercharges of their own, of a tyrannical and murderous senior officer and his henchmen. It became clear that while stranded on the island the crew had fallen into anarchy, with warring factions fighting for dominion over the barren wilderness. As accusations of treachery and murder flew, the Admiralty convened a court martial to determine who was telling the truth. The stakes were life-and-death—for whomever the court found guilty could hang.

The Wager is a grand tale of human behavior at the extremes told by one of our greatest nonfiction writers. Grann's recreation of the hidden world on a British warship rivals the work of Patrick O'Brian, his portrayal of the castaways' desperate straits stands up to the classics of survival writing such as The Endurance, and his account of the court martial has the savvy of a Scott Turow thriller. As always with Grann's work, the incredible twists of the narrative hold the reader spellbound.

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Media Reviews

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This information about The Wager was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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Iris P. (Des Moines, IA)

"Red sky at night, sailors' delight. Red sky in the morn, sailors' forlorn"
Meticulously researched and expertly described—with illuminating background details. David Grann newest book, The Wager, places the reader into the riggings and high onto the sails in 1740 as the ship sails from Portsmouth and round Cape Horn. The fight for God and Country. Life and liberty. And Honor. Measure their worth, if you dare, as you slog along with the crew for each day's survival. Magnificently resilient and triumphant? Or Survival at all cost. Or—at any cost?
Author David Grann makes You the Judge. Well done!

Suzanne B. (Merrimac, MA)

Great author-fabulous adventure
I am so happy to review this book, The Wager. Two months ago I just finished David Grann's book The Lost City of Z which I devoured and gave a 5/5 stars.

Grann is an engaging and amazing storyteller. I appreciated that this book was so meticulously researched and the author did a great job presenting the sides of each of the characters in the book so we could form our own decisions on what we deemed right/wrong (or simply who to cheer for). I had empathy for all the characters in this story due to the authors fair descriptions of the trials and tribulations each faced! I love a book that I can learn from yet, at the same time, is a page turner-which this hit out of the park!

What makes this story so fascinating is the story covers so many facets; it is not just a shipwreck story. The focus of the story changes to a mutiny (or is it even a mutiny if the ships is no longer at Sea), to a survival story, to a morale conflict story (who should be sacrificed and based on what) to a legal story (the court martial), and finally a good history refresher of this fascinating time in history.. My only challenge was in the beginning I feel I had read or watched shows with many of the scenes of illness/sickness/scurvy/survival of the ship and not a lot was new to me. But the last 2/3 of the book was amazing including the painful decisions that had to be made by so many; including the scene where 4 Marines had to be left on the island, to the Captain shooting a mutineer which was justified by him and others to preserve order..

There was so much action in this book. Even when a few of the ships landed safely there was the court martial event-and interesting on what decisions were made based on England's desire for the world to focus on their one huge win, the capture of the Spanish Treasure ship. Danger lurked as one of the men tried publish a book in which many others tried to stop the publishing due to the fear of the events making them look guilty and subject to a court martial. The story leads us to the different versions of books written by the different people from these ships, but ultimately what we choose what we want to believe as the reader.

I am so relieved I was never on a ship during those times and would be a horrible Captain-making tough decisions daily-I will continue to be a reader of these books only ;).

I cannot wait to read Grann's other book, Killers of the Flower Moon and any future books he writes!
Thank you!

Linda M. (Ocala, FL)

A Wild Ride
I have read two other books by David Grann so my expectations were high when I began to read The Wager. Coincidentally, I had just returned from a trip through the Strait of Magellan and the Drake Passage to Cape Horn so I have personally experienced the wind, sleet, fog, clouds rocky cliffs and raging seas that he so vividly describes. Reading this book swept me right back to this wild place. Grann is a skilled storyteller who is able to keep the reader engaged as he tells the story of a ship sailing in the 1700s when ships were barely seaworthy, and scurvy, fatal accidents, hunger and thirst were every day events. Unfortunately, shipwrecks were not an uncommon occurrence either. The descriptions of the storms, the land, the natives and the struggles of the crew in the extremely hostile environment keep the reader turning the pages. Grann educates and entertains the reader. My kind of book.

Dan W. (Fort Myers, FL)

Although the subject matter was not of great interest to me when I started reading the book, my opinion quickly changed when more of the narrative was developed. The author takes a maritime scandal and engulfs the reader in a suspenseful historical thriller! Although I usually avoid this genre of book, I suddenly was reading page after page with no thought of stopping.


Gripping Tale of Survival and History
This well-researched narrative of The Wager takes elements of true crime and history and combines it with a deliciously literary way of storytelling to make a very compelling read. Set in 1740, The Wager was part of a squadron whose mission was to capture a treasure-filled Spanish galleon near the tip of South America. To say this mission was a disaster is actually understating the case. Grann does an amazing job of piecing together the extensive source material to create a narrative of what likely happened after The Wager vanished. Without spoiling the book, let's just say it's an incredible survival story, but also, a story of what happens to civilized order when lives are on the line. Grann then overlays that with observations on media and empire-building and how this small story has big lessons for us all.

Engaging, succinct, and a wonderful way to be introduced to important historical concepts while grabbing the reader and not letting go.

Gail B

Heaven Help the Sailors...
For readers who enjoy swashbuckling tales, David Grann has composed a fascinating account of HMS WAGER, a British man-of-war which began its voyage in 1740. WAGER was part of a squadron whose mission was to capture a treasure-filled galleon in the War of Jenkins' Ear against Spain. Their motives: patriotism and a share of the booty.

The British ships got off to a promising start until they tried to pass around South America's Cape Horn. The ships were battered by ice and snowstorms, shipwreck, depravation, famine, illness and misery off the coast of Patagonia. An interesting cast of characters from all ages and strata of society: David Cheap, captain of the flagship CENTURION. Castaways: gunner and log keeper John Bulkeley; sixteen-year old John Byron of poet Lord Byron's family; carpenter Cummins, who cobbled together a fragile boat. Together they formed a "Band of Brothers" when WAGER broke up. Survivors made their way back to the coast of Brazil, then home to England, where the story continued and inspired famous writers, to include Samuel Coleridge, John Melville and Patrick O'Brien.

WAGER is exciting, well-written nonfiction. I couldn't put it down!

...10 more reader reviews

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Author Information

David Grann Author Biography

Photo: Michael Lionstar

David Grann is the author of the #1 New York Times bestsellers Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z. Killers of the Flower Moon was a finalist for the National Book Award and won an Edgar Allan Poe Award. He is also the author of The White Darkness and the collection The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. Grann's investigative reporting has garnered several honors, including a George Polk Award. He lives with his wife and children in New York.

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Link to David Grann's Website

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