Robb White's "Flotsam and Jetsam": Wild Reports from the Hands-on World
[$15 postpaid in the USA. Big sale! 30+% off! 568 pages, paperback, 6" x 9", published by Breakaway Books.]
Review by OYB-contributor Michael Edelman
If you're already familiar with Robb White, you've probably already ordered your own copy of this book. If not, you've been missing one of the great story tellers, boat builders, and naturalists of the modern era.
I first came across White's writing in the pages of "Messing About in Boats," a then-bimonthly journal devoted to small boats and, well, messing about. Almost every issue had one or two essays by a man whom I at first took to be some old opinionated Georgia cracker, but whom I later realized was a very wise and educated man - even as he tried to hide that fact. His essays covered an incredibly wide range of topics - the best woods for boat building, how to cook a turtle, repairing 1930s marine engines, people he'd met, growing up in rural Georgia, the natural history of the woodpecker - Robb was interested in everything he observed, and he went through life with his eyes wide open.
Robb was one of those rare people who spent his entire life doing exactly what he wanted to. He was, at times, a logger (of his own trees), a river towboat mechanic, a middle school teacher, and a grad student in marine biology. Most importantly, he was a builder of small boats his entire life, and built and designed a number of small, lightweight, elegant craft that were responsible for his reputation in the world of wooden boats.
He was opinionated, but behind his opinions were usually solid facts. He hated fiberglass boats - he called it "frozen snot" - plywood, air conditioning, and a thousand other artifacts of the modern world. But he was no Luddite. He was famous for his ability to restore old outboards, and he came up with a novel way to use epoxy to encapsulate wooden boats, using methods contrary to what everyone else believed was the right way to do it.
I have a stack of copies of "Messing About In Boats" that I've saved all these years largely to keep all those great Robb White essays around. Now, with the publication of this book, I can carry them around with me, too.
I have another report on Robb White and what he means to me elsewhere here at OYB, but I don't mind repeating myself some.
Robb was a witty hero of can-do, make-do. He was cranky but he backed up his wild assertions with surprisingly sober lore. A great combo! His observations sometimes seem informed by witchcraft but then with the next sentence you realize that it's "just" plain paying attention and experience that's behind them. Ya know, I've heard that the mystics say that a miracle happens whenever we see life as it really is. Robb's writing isn't THAT shocking but it's steadily startling. And refreshing as a result. He's the quintessential young-old guy.
Among my many favorites in this book is the part about how he and his sibs and cousins grew up running wild in a rowboat along the Florida Panhandle beach. I love a reality of a gang kids of all ages, including diapered, exploring on their own and eating raw shellfish like raccoons to stay nourished during a hot summer day.
Then there's his writing style. He digresses. Then wends back around in the most charming way. And he has a nifty style anyway, occasionally starting sentences with "Which," which then launches into an essential but parenthetical notion. He has homely expressions but they're fresh, not cliched -- they're comfy but you haven't seen them just like that before, or if you have it's nice to see them again.
I love how the mullet fish are always sizing him up and getting ready to escape from his cast-net... His portrayal of the eternal (and virally spreading) rubes and yahoos is astonishing, too. But he has sympathy for the plight and even the missteps of the locals. It seems that he views society as a sometimes humorous ecosystem.
The really crazy thing is that I recently rediscovered book that first got me really revved up on dreams of can-do living in the South Seas. It's called "Our Virgin Island," which is Caribbean, but what did I know as a 15-year-old. It was written by Robb's father! I'd never known that. But that guy had gusto, too. It's a tale of poor newlyweds who sail off to an island and live poor and creatively among their interesting neighbors as the youngster tries to make a living typing on his old manual clacker. Too bad it's out of print.
Interestingly, this new book of Robb White, Jr.'s, writings had a hard time coming into print. NYC jerked the little guys around for awhile. But the indie press (via Garth Batista's Breakaway Books) triumphed and now we have a rare new chance to sink our teeth into some fine reading of the highest order, of the sort you simply cannot find elsewhere. The chapters are semi-chronological and a few pages long each. But you can jump in anywhere, which I do.
Say, I also sell Robb's arty hardcover first book, "How to Build a Tin Canoe." So if you want something thinner, with a classy ragged-right page-trim, and slightly cheaper, it's $20, mailed. Link: http://outyourbackdoor.com/article.php?id=117