The loss of innocence is a common theme of fiction. It's not unusual for a young man or woman, or even a middle-aged one, to look back on the year that things changed. The year they grew up.
For young Cal in When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man, it is the winter he discovers what it may have been like for the good captain in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island before he turned became a pirate. And because of what he learns and what happens, he leaves Loyalty Island in Nick Dybek's novel of innocence lost. Cal believes he can never return home because he will never regain his innocence.
Cal grows up the son of a crab fisherman, the captain of one of the ships owned by John Gaunt. Captain Henry Bollings and the other captains, including one named Brooks (Gaunt, Bolingbrooke, hmmm...) can provide for their families because of Gaunt's good stewardship of the fleet. Everyone and everything on Washington state's Loyalty Island owe their livelihoods to Gaunt.
The captains are good, hard-working men whose children adore them and whose wives suffer while they are gone to the Bering Sea (just like those guys on The Deadliest Catch). Cal idolizes his father, who spends one off-season telling him bedtime stories of the good Captain Flint. In Treasure Island, Flint is the pirate captain whose treasure map sends Jim on his journey:
Squire Trelawney ... said, "Why old Captain Flint was the most bloodthirsty buccaneer who ever lived! The Spanish were so afraid of Flint I was sometimes proud he was an Englishman! If I had a clue where his treasure was, I'd search for a year to find it."To Cal, his father is as honorable and brave and true as Captain Flint was before he turned pirate. The next year, his father asks Cal if he knew the stories were just that, stories. Suddenly deflated, Cal realizes he has been waiting for more stories that couldn't possibly be true.
It's a timely question. John Gaunt dies suddenly. His wastrel son, Richard, comes back to town to fidget about what he should do with his unwanted legacy. Ultimately, he makes a public announcement that he plans to sell the fleet to the Japanese. Everyone will be out of a job. The town will die. Then, for the first time in Richard's life, the captains announce he has agreed to go crabbing with them. Not two days into the season, the word comes back that he has fallen overboard.
The rest of that winter, Cal is on his own. His mother, a woman from off island who loves music and doesn't quite fit in, goes back to California, expecting her second child. Cal is dumped at the Norths to share a room with Jamie, another guy his age who he knows but maybe hasn't shared much with before. There hasn't been much to share up to this point. Well, there's a lot to be shared now. To say more would be a major spoiler, but Cal discovers what he has based his world on may not be so, that honorable men may be as capable of doing evil as anyone else. That Captain Flint may have been no better than Long John Silver all along.
Some readers may have a hard time accepting the rest of the plot. But the rest of the novel can be accepted as a big "what if" cause-and-effect chain of events that could take good people far beyond where they ever thought they would go. It's the wrestling with accepting those you admire are not perfect that matters most in this story. Cal and Richard are alike in that both admire their fathers and neither can see themselves taking over the family business. But where one is a lost soul, the other hasn't given up the search. That difference is what can mean the difference between setting your own course and being overwhelmed by trying to go against the tide.
Dybek's novel is a stronger one because he does a wonderful job of conveying the town's dependence on the successful of the fleet. He puts the reader directly in the middle of the sights, the smells and the sounds of Loyalty Island, of the dreary weather and the long days waiting for the men to return, of the tough men enduring harsh lives because they love the sea as much as they love their families, and of the empty months their sons endure waiting for them to return to tell them more tales of glory.
The historical ties to the names of the characters add an extra layer of dynasty and tradition, but do not overwhelm the story of Cal's coming of age.
My classical choice of a novel conveying innocence lost is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, as Pip learns about his real heritage and whether he can trust the girl he has grown to love. John Irving writes a great deal about innocence lost. A novel set in my part of the world, the American West, that tells a brilliantly moving tale of innocence lost is Larry Watson's Montana 1948. And there there is The Catcher in the Rye. I also would add Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. What others are moving examples of this important rite of passage?