August 6, 2012
Jean Laffite: The Pirate who Saved America by Susan Goldman Rubin
When I heard about this book, I knew I had to get a hold of a copy. Jewish pirates? Seriously?
But it makes sense if you know your history, and Rubin covers enough of the history to set the stage. Spain had an issue with anyone who wasn’t Catholic. Jews in Spain had two choices — flee or convert. Many fled to the Americas. The Laffite family lived in Haiti and then later New Orleans. Not surprisingly, Spain continued to make their lives difficult. As a result, many young Jewish men, even young men from good families, dreamed of becoming pirates. All a ship captain needed was a letter of marque, called a license, and he had permission to more-or-less legally harass the Spanish.
Jean grew up hearing stories from his older brother, Alexander. Alexander was a pirate and he told his younger brothers about his adventures vs Spain.
Jean also grew up with a loving Grandmother who wanted him to be a good person. She gave him a copy of the Jewish scriptures that he carried with him as an adult.
Jean became a pirate. He was a thorn in the side of Spain. In New Orleans, he was a leader among his fellow pirates and new the bayou better than anyone. When he learned from a spy that Britain intended to attack New Orleans he finally got Andrew Jackson to listen to him. With the help of Laffite and his pirates, Jackson successfully defended New Orleans against a much larger British force.
This is definitely a book that I would recommend for a variety of reasons:
- It doesn’t sugar coat being a pirate but it does also show that Laffite was not like many other pirates. There were things he wouldn’t do.
- It doesn’t ignore the slavery issue. When Laffite stole the cargo from Spanish ships, he sometimes ended up with human cargo. The fate of these slaves is not ignored or brushed aside.
- It shows Jean Laffite as a complex human being. He did things that seemingly went against his values but he loved his family. He was a leader as long as he got to do things more or less his way. See? Complex! Real.
This book would be a marvelous point of discussion on many topics from history to ethics. Although it is a picture book, it is just over 3000 words long. Between the topic and the length, this is clearly a book for older grade school students, not kindergartners.
Rubin takes a marvelously complex person and does not over-simplify him. She trusts the reader to be able to handle the complexity and the contradictions and, as a result, gives true insight into our nation’s history and the moral dilemmas we all face.