Book review: ‘Voyage of the Eclipse’ is more than a boat story

Mat-Su College history professor Erik T. Hirschmann weaves fascinating history with an adventurous narrative in his first book.

A cozy trifecta: a rainy day, a coffee shop, and an interesting book, "Voyage of the Eclipse" by Mat-Su College history professor, Erik T. Hirschmann. Photo by Kaycee Davis.

Hirschmann, Erik T., “Voyage of the Eclipse.” Epicenter Press, 2023. 286 pages. 1684920515 $15.95 978-1684920518

A good adventure following the “Hero’s Journey” outline should include a hero, a quest, an unfamiliar environment, a villain, a risk and a transformation. Erik T. Hirschman has mastered them all in his engrossing work of historical fiction, “Voyage of the Eclipse.”

“Voyage” begins in 1801 as Second Mate Joshua Hall leaves Boston with First Mate Michah Triplett, Captain Jonathan Fletcher, and eight others on a trip to Alaska to find out what happened to Hall’s brother Elias. Along the way, they pick up otter pelts and goods to trade and sell in China.

Only two days out of port, they are trailed by the English who want to requisition their ship and induct the mostly teenaged sailors into the fight against Napoleon’s navy.

On paper, 25-year-old Fletcher might seem too young to captain a ship, but he is a match for the captain of the 22-gun H.M.S. Leopard.

What seems like an honorable captain taking drastic measures to protect his men quickly changes when the reader realizes that he is fast and loose when it comes to gambling — be it with his ship, his cargo or his crew. Those placed directly below him in command are brave enough to speak up, but also know when to back down and simply follow orders.

The ages of the characters are often mentioned. Readers can never forget that many of the sailors in the novel would still be in high school if they were alive today.

“Voyage” reads like a movie with fast action on every page.

I met Hirschmann at Mat-Su College to talk about his book and asked him how he achieved this. He said, “I kept tension with my characters constantly. If it wasn’t between the sailors on the ship, it was with the elements.”

If it isn’t personal drama between the sailors and people they contend with on shore, it is drama from the elements and interaction with the skies and ocean. The elements are more than symbolism; they have multiple personalities to convey shifts in the story.

In Hawaii, the Eclipse picks up the female sailors, Aolani and Alamea, who are the lovers of Triplett and Fletcher.

Readers learn how negotiations and trades were made, slaves were bought and sold, and of vices, temptations and unscrupulous villains as the ship docks in various ports.

Fletcher’s constant dancing with the fates at the beginning of the story appears minor when they reach Alaska. There he contends with fights between clans and the underhanded ways of other traders, who are all fighting for survival and valuable goods.

Russian-Tlingit relations are touched upon and, for students of Alaska history, it shines light on what history classes might not have time to delve into.

Something that made me uncomfortable was learning that the Haida and Tlingit tribes had slaves, which are openly discussed in the book. Hirschmann makes no apologies for them, they were simply part of life for some tribes in Alaska.

I asked Hirschmann about his writing process and he said that he “brainstormed” ideas before he even got started on his storyline, then as he wrote, he would often have to “go back and do more research.”  

History buffs will appreciate Hirschmann’s nods to the events of the early nineteenth century. Students of botany and medicine will appreciate Hirschmann’s triage scenes that are medically accurate for the time and use local flora to aid in treating wounds. He presents information in a way that the reader doesn’t even realize how much they are learning.

It is no surprise that “Voyage of the Eclipse” is a finalist in the 17th Indie Book Awards for Historical Fiction.

I enjoyed reading “Voyage of the Eclipse” but found that something was missing – technology. I think a book like this needs QR codes for easy scanning and referencing. I wanted to quickly look up places and events; constellations, flora and fauna without slipping into a rabbit hole.

A book like this needs printed maps and drawings – which were not included. It would be good for readers to see where the Eclipse is headed at the beginning of the book, and then have close-up maps of important ports of call as they were in 1802 throughout the chapters for reference.

Even without maps, “Voyage of the Eclipse” is a stellar piece of historical fiction.