REVIEW: What the Parrot Saw by Darlene Marshall
Hijacking an Englishman from a brothel is all in a day’s work for Captain Mattie St. Armand. She needs protective coloration, and a naïve (and expendable) white man will keep the eyes of the authorities off her as she smuggles slaves from the Florida Territory to freedom in the Bahamas.
Oliver Woodruff wanted a spot of travel in the Caribbean before he settled down, but he never expected “Marauding Mattie.” He’ll help her, but he knows there’s no place in his world for the bastard daughter of a pirate and a freedwoman.
As Mattie trains him for their ruse, she comes to realize he’s a man she can turn to for support and companionship, and Oliver grows to love the commanding and daring woman who refuses to fit society’s mold… but both are sure their relationship is doomed by society’s taboos.
It will take danger and adventure (and Roscoe the parrot) to convince them that the passion between them is more than an island fantasy.
TRIGGER WARNING – Negative descriptive words are used in historical context by certain tertiary characters. This includes the “N” word. Slavery is depicted.
Dear Ms. Marshall,
Well swab my decks and call me a parrot, has it really been five years since the release of “The Pirate’s Secret Baby”? ::checks review date:: Yes, it has and believe me, there were times I worried that this book would ever be in my hot, grasping hands. Whew, the wait is finally over. While I heartily recommend that the whole series be read, I think this book stands on its own. I also think it’s a bit darker in tone than the previous books and readers need to prepare for the inclusion of slavery, the use of certain terms and words and a very unconventional heroine.
When last we saw her, young Mattie, along with her father and soon-to-be step-mother, were in England after a voyage across the Atlantic. Yes, Mattie was the secret baby. Now Mattie’s all grown up and even more skilled with sharp bladed weapons. She is definitely not someone to make mad because she’s always armed and knows how to fight.
Oliver Woodruff wanted a bit of adventure before settling down to run the family cotton mill in England. Unfortunately his loudly stated views on slavery (he’s against it though the issue is hotly debated among mill owners in England who are still tied to American cotton production) angered some people and the brothel owner hiding him needs him off the island. I kind of missed the point about how he got hidden there but no matter.
Mattie might have a use for Oliver – if she judges him as willing to work and she can weapons train him enough not to be a danger to himself and others. He’s got to prove himself to her crew as well. And to the ship’s cat who Mattie has always found to be a shrewd judge of character. Luckily for Oliver, Roscoe takes right to him despite the fact that Oliver has a hard time accepting a meowing parrot who thinks he’s a cat.
“This is Roscoe, the ship’s cat. Who’s a good kitty? Who’s a good boy?”
Oliver could deal with being shot at, beaten, evicted from a brothel, kidnapped by pirates, but there were some situations he was not willing to accept. “I realize I may not survive this voyage in one piece, but I must speak my mind, Captain. That is not a cat.”
“When I want your opinion, I will tell you so. Roscoe’s a prime mouser and a valuable member of the crew. Last I checked, your greatest value to me may be in selling you to the anatomists. Do not confuse our ship’s cat about his duties aboard this vessel.”
Poor Oliver is confused about a lot of things but finds himself strangely attracted to this sensuous and deadly person. His warnings for Captain St. Armand “not to have designs on [his] fair young body” are amusing. Her laughter when he realizes the truth is embarrassing. In the meantime, Oliver finds himself entertaining increasingly vivid and sexual fantasies about the “Captain” including about what she “wears” to add verisimilitude to her appearance, how she uses it and if she’d be willing to use it on him.
“Pay attention, Woodruff, or you’re no use to me and I’ll ship you out on the next packet to Liverpool.”
“‘Not sporting.’ Do you know what we call men who don’t fight fairly?”
“We call them alive.
As Mattie trains Oliver he realizes a few things. It’s best not to question sailors too closely about themselves. He can accept her as a strong, competent person with “command presence” who can kick ass/arse. She knows a hell of a lot more about weapons than he does. And his views on slavery are going to get confirmed with first hand knowledge. Signing on to help after meeting some newly freed slaves, he acknowledges all Mattie tells him might happen if they’re caught. His whiteness can open doors, smooth paths, and close mouths but where they’re going, assisting slaves in escaping can get you killed. Death might be the easier and less painless outcome.
In the meantime, Mattie decides that a little dalliance with this pretty, young man might be fun and what’s life without some fun. Mattie feels free to take her sexual enjoyment where she encounters it and she doesn’t restrict herself to the opposite sex. Learning about Oliver’s past sexual experience also teaches her a bit more about his character; he’s a romantic with a conscience. As she spends more time with him, Mattie sees what she’s been missing from the blur of young men with whom she’s amused herself. She longs for conversation and someone who looks at her just as a person and not someone who doesn’t fit the mold society tries to slot all women into. Oliver sees a woman who isn’t coy, doesn’t play games, takes what she wants, and is honest about it all.
If she wanted him, she’d say so. If she didn’t want him, she’d say that too. And if he persisted with unwelcome advances, she’d gut him like a trout.
Oddly enough, this honest, if bloody, behavior cheered him up. Wondering whether a woman you courted would slap you if you stole a kiss was all well and good, but wondering whether the woman would wear your guts for garters added an excitement to the day that he was beginning to appreciate.
Mattie’s actions and viewpoints can be disturbing to Oliver at times. She’s a merchant and trades in slave grown products. She takes money from Anti-Slave societies to pay her for her work yet she’s also a woman of color. Still she makes Oliver confront the harsh realities of the world and his own part in what drives slavery. When faced with a choice, what will Oliver decide to do, will he be able to count on Mattie and how will this affect the growing feelings they have for each other.
Earlier I mentioned the darker tone to this book. While it has amusing scenes, the inclusion of slavery gives a much more somber feel to it. What Oliver sees and experiences shocks him as it should. What happens to him will stay with him for life and also spur him forward in his abolition efforts to free himself and his mill from American cotton.
I enjoyed how the usual gender dynamics get flipped. Mattie is the strong, capable one who holds the position of authority and (mainly) gives the orders. She’s also confident in her sexuality and her femininity even if she usually dresses as a man. She’s had relationships with women as well as men and she leads Oliver down the garden path of fulfillment in ways he never imagined. Soon he’s smitten but not just with her strength but also with her intelligence. He knows she’s The One. What made me get twitchy over the course of the book is how Mattie often chooses flight in the face of making an emotional commitment. Once I could see. Her vulnerability in the face of what happened to Oliver makes sense. But when she kept doing this … I wanted to shake her. Thankfully Oliver is made of sterner stuff. B
She sighed, trying one last time to save him from himself, and from her. “Don’t you worry I will take the family silver and run off to sea?”
“No. I don’t worry about you running off with the family silver. I worry you will take the family silver and run off to sea without me.”
“Oh very well, I’ll take you, and the children, and the silver.”
“And the cat. Roscoe has to come with us as well when you run off with the silver, and me, and the children…”
“Quiet, Sunshine,” she said kissing him again.