Incredible Cross Sections: Man-Of-War

Author: Richard Platt (Illustrated by Stephen Biesty)
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley
Year: 1993
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

You might be thinking this right now: "Has Daryl gone nuts?!" Yeah, I've got some real gall submitting a review of a children’s book to a naval simulation website - and to think they actually accepted it! But bear with me a minute folks. I’m sure many of the older Subsim members have children of their own, and when they start developing their own interest in naval history...well, you’re not going to fork over $50 for the newest Naval Institute title for your third grader, are you?

Kid’s books on naval subjects have always been few and far between, probably because most young boys get a bigger kick out of tanks and fighter planes, and consider ships and submarines "boring" and "geeky." Whatever everyone else my age may have thought, when I begged my Mom to buy me a copy of Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross Sections when I was eight, I was hooked on ships and submarines forever. That book beautifully detailed cut-away drawings of 18 vehicles and structures, including a Spanish Galleon, a Type VII U-boat, a modern fishing trawler, and the Queen Mary. For once, ships weren’t just mysterious machines that floating magically on the water, they were real life mechanical constructs, assembled much like buildings and populated by living, breathing people.

Incredible Cross-Sections: Man-Of-War was Biesty’s second book created in cooperation with writer Richard Platt, and my favorite of his by far. Then again, my own personal bias probably plays a part in that! The subject of this book is a British 100-gun first-rate ship-of-the-line of the late 18th Century, a virtual replica in all but name of Horatio Nelson’s famous HMS Victory. He slices the ship into 10 vertical sections from fore to aft, each slice depicting a different aspect of life onboard, including health and medicine, sleeping, resupplying in port, battle, and working at sea. Each spread includes a large transverse section through the ship with important features labeled and described, and a number of informational capsule summaries covering subjects ranging from how cannons were fired, the tools used by the surgeon, and what the crew ate.

Stephen Biesty’s art style is worth describing in some detail. A graduate of both Brighton and Birmingham Polytechnic, Biesty has always been an illustrator firmly rooted in the old school. Even today he refuses to use a computer when creating his artwork, or even a ruler for that matter! He uses nothing but pen, ink, and water color paints, and his style is unlike anyone else out there. Except for the bright red uniforms worn by the ship's marines, Man-Of-War employs a fairly subdued color palette, but the sheer amount of detail is often mind boggling. In the spread on working at sea, you’ll find sailors chasing rats in the hold, marines hanging their backpacks from the lower deck beams, sail makers mending the sails, a one-legged sailor playing a fiddle atop the capstan, men scurrying up rigging, and a dead sailor being consigned to the sea, just to name a few things. His attention to historical accuracy is commendable as well. The arrangement of the ship, the way the frames and beams are laid out, the uniforms worn by the crew, and the overall depiction of how the officers and crew lived and worked are all pretty much dead on.

Since Biesty’s depictions are so accurate, Man-Of-War is also probably one of the nastiest children’s books ever written. Jump to page 18-19, and you’ll see a gun crew being wiped out by flying splinters, men with arms and legs missing, wounded sailors crying out in pain, and dismembered heads and legs floating in the water. Elsewhere in the book, you’ll find illustrations of the surgeon performing an amputation, plenty of vomit and drunkenness, biscuits riddled with weevils, lashings, and with all of Biesty’s books, people going to the bathroom. While Man-Of-War was written for the 9-12 age group, parents might want to give it a once-over before buying it.

Nit-picking a children’s book might be silly, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more information on the working of sails and rigging. Of course, that element of the Age of Sail has always been the most frustratingly beguiling to aficionados of the Age of Fighting Steel, and including too much information on it probably would have just confused the book’s target age range. On the up side, a decent overall view of the ship is included, along with a glossary that explains most of the terms used in the book. Except for a few nagging issues that I take exception to as an "adult," Man-Of-War is definitely a "cool" book that will appeal to naval enthusiasts of all ages. It’s vivid, detailed, gritty, honest, and peppered with black humor, and certain to become a favorite amongst fans of C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian.



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