“Calusa Spirits,” by SR Staley

SR Staley

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Instead of losing steam, the hero of SR Staley’s Calusa Spirits gains depth and stature in this third installment of the Pirate of Panther Bay series. In some respects, the captain of La Marée Rouge is a classic pirate yet in other ways defies convention. The captain proves bold and brave and skilled at fighting. But she (yes, she!) is black, and her main objective is not to loot and pillage, but in her own words “to free my people. Or die trying.”

Isabella was born into slavery on a Santa Domingo plantation. Her mother mysteriously claims this child will “fulfill a prophecy,” one that comes into sharper focus in this book. Captain Isabella inspires exceptional devotion from her crew, ranging from the passion of her current lover and former Spanish naval captain Juan Carlos, to the more fraternal attachment of fellow pirate Jean-Michel, to Gabrielle, a barkeep rescued from Port-au-Prince, who explains their feelings this way: “You love her as I have learned to love her, for her spirit, her guidance, her drive to see the dignity in each of us, no matter what our past.”

In the early novels, The Pirate of Panther Bay and Tortuga Bay, Isabella escapes from slavery and joins a pirate crew that pillages the merchant ships of her former colonial masters. Later she is caught up in the slave revolt at Port-au-Prince. She has suffered beatings and torture.

This third novel begins in a pitched battle against Spaniards trying to board Isabella’s ship off the shores of Cuba. Fortunately, her crew fares better than the professionals the Captain-General of the West Indies sent to capture them.

Most action, however, occurs as La Marée Rouge heads toward the coast of La Florida, aiming for a trading post on the Caloosahatchee River where they hope to obtain desperately needed provisions. The crew has heard rumors of monsters that “crawl on their bellies but strike swiftly from under the water.” However, crocodiles prove to be the least of their worries. Though the last remaining remnants of the Calusa Indians were supposedly removed to Cuba, Isabella and her band of pirates discover a village of these fierce warriors. Four human heads mounted on pikes strongly hint that trouble awaits visitors to the village. Yet the sophistication of their culture, in many regards more efficient than those found on Caribbean plantations, surprises Isabella: “The Calusa were more than warriors. These paths, like the canals, the lagoon, and this village, were marvels of engineering. The Calusa molded their environment to serve them . . .”

Previous encounters have led the Calusa to mistrust all white men. While Isabella and Gabrielle aren’t mistreated, the male pirates are held in a separate part of the village—and will certainly die unless Isabella can devise a plan to save them. There is never a moment’s doubt that the plucky captain will come through for her men.

An interesting addition to the crew is Omena, a Japanese sailor captured from the Spaniards. An agile fellow of small stature, he is able to climb the rigging easily. More important, he employs martial arts skills in battle, skills that appear almost magical to his fellow pirates.  After Isabella is wounded by the Indians, hovering between life and death, Omena’s philosophy provides a measure of comfort to Isabella’s lover Juan Carlos. Omena assures Juan Carlos that when you love someone, that person lives on in you, even after death.

With muskets popping, canons roaring, storms threatening, and sandbars looming, the action of Calusa Spirits pulls readers along relentlessly, but the bonus of Native American history and precise descriptions of the Florida wilderness make this story shine.

Staley plans three more books in this series. In an author’s note, he hints that Jean Laffite, a child Isabella rescues from the Calusa, will assume a prominent and historic role as a pirate in future installments. SR Staley’s fiction and nonfiction books have won more than ten literary awards. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald. He currently serves on the full-time faculty of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. He is also a movie reviewer and film critic for the Independent Institute in Oakland, California.

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