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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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  • Published:
    Apr 2023, 352 pages


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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.
Power Reviewer
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!
Jan B. (Estes Park, CO)

The Wager
Chilling and thrilling are the best words that I can use to describe David Gann's "The Wager." I found myself torn between being fascinated by how the men and boys could have endured this tragedy on the sea and cringing from the graphic descriptions of the fight for survival. The author did a fantastic job of drawing the reader into the minds and hearts of the characters. He also left the reader grappling with the question of "who is/are the hero(es) and who should be hanging for their deeds?"
This is a book for someone who enjoys digging into the back stories in history. This would be a fitting discussion for a book club that discusses personalities, events, and motivation for actions. I would not recommend to a book club that prefers lighter subjects.
Windell H. (Rock Hill, SC)

The Wager
The Wager is a well written account of life, death, murder and intrigue on the high seas during the mid eighteenth century. The story takes place when a group of British ships attempt to round Cape Horn, a very treacherous passage of ocean around the tip of South America. The novel stresses the need for discipline and order with so many men involved. It also shows how men without these qualities can resort to anarchy. Amazingly some the men make it back to England where a court-marshal will determine the consequences of bad choices made by the dissenters of the crew. In the end the crew escapes severe punishment due to the public having heard the accounts of many involved causing confusion in the admiralty. A great read.
Jill D. (Palm Beach Gardens, FL)

Another worthwhile read from David Grann
I have read a number of books by David Grann, including The Lost City of Z and Killers of the Flower Moon. I am now fortunate to have read a prepublication of his latest book, The Wager. As with all his books, Mr. Grann has distilled a large amount of research. In fact, having read this book on my Kindle, the book itself was finished at 66% and the remainder of the book was citations and footnotes. It is an interesting story of the shipwreck of The Wager. It is not a spoiler to say that more than one group made it back with conflicting stories. It was quite harrowing to read all that they went through in order to survive.

It was interesting to see that this event was the source material for everything from Herman Melville to the poems of Lord Byron (the grandson of a featured midshipman, John Byron). In light of how ill equipped this ship was with a reluctant crew, diseases such as typhus and scurvy, wooden ships, and no measurement of longitude, it was a miracle that anyone came back alive. Mr. Grann's prose has brought their experiences to life. Some of them are difficult to read about but Mr. Grann moves the story along to its surprising conclusion. It is a story that will fascinate readers of his previous books. A worthwhile read.
Janet T. (Northbrook, IL)

An adventure for you
I love a good nonfiction story and David Grann delivers. Experience working onboard a British battleship without the deprivations and dangers. All this adventure, so many situations dire and confounding. It's a gripping fast read.
Mary Jane D. (Arlington Heights, IL)

True Swashbuckling Tale
The Wager is a very well researched and well written story of a little known historical event. The documented events on the HMS Wager were the inspiration for some famous writers but David Grann tells us the entire story of an 18th century maritime disaster. He makes this nonfiction account very readable and in fact come alive. The characters are well developed with much initial background about them. I felt the beginning was a little slow but then realized we needed the details to understand their actions.

This book would appeal to readers interested in British maritime history or those who like a good swashbuckling true tale of the sea.
Brenda D'

The Wager
An unbelievable story, but true, of hardship, fortitude, betrayal, human folly, and survival. It's also a look at the pervasiveness of England's 18th century societal class structure, its government, and its imperialistic ambitions.

Author makes even 18th century maritime history interesting in this well-researched, well written, and easily readable book. It is a fascinating look at the complex world of maritime life, customs, and procedures. Particularly effective is the way he builds the characters in the beginning so you can follow them throughout the suspenseful story.

If you enjoy non-fiction, this one is a must read. I would give it a 4.5 rating.
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Beyond the Book:
  Cape Horn

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