I’m on a bit of a Jean Lafitte kick lately. I recently came across him in Danielle, a YA romance novel I remember reading when I was about ten (the Sunfire Series, for those of you who remember; it’s been a hilarious pastime of mine lately to revisit the novels of my youth). He plays a minor character, but one who sets the backdrop for early nineteenth century Louisiana very effectively. A gentleman pirate who helped shaped a nation – what’s there not to love?
As soon as I was done reading, I remembered Mr. Lafitte also made a similar minor appearance in Zorro, by Isabelle Allende. She’s one of my favorite authors, so I picked up the book again and re-read it.
But then I wanted more. Both books only brushed the surface of the pirate’s life and escapades, and I find myself intrigued by the life he led. I could have always picked up a nonfiction book about him, but those have never really been my style. I prefer a good, lyrical retelling any day.
So, I looked everywhere for a historical fiction novel about Jean Lafitte and came up empty. I eventually put a query out on Twitter and was directed toward Siren, by Cheryl Sawyer. The book is out of print, so I ordered a used copy and am eagerly awaiting for it to be delivered.
Still, I find myself wondering why it was so difficult to find a novel wherein he plays the primary hero. There are hundreds of romance novels out there about gentleman pirates, especially in that time period. Privateers, as they were called, were sanctioned by their own governments to pillage the ships of enemy nations. They had the ultimate stamp of romance novel hero approval: they were outcasts but not villains. It’s a nice, tidy way to depict what were probably a motley, smelly crew as daring noblemen bent on swashbuckling adventures and daily baths.
So Jean Lafitte, the ultimate gentleman pirate, should be incredible fodder for storytelling. He built a successful business based on his privateering role. He employed hundreds, lived a life of rich luxury, captivated women with his charming, mysterious ways, and helped Andrew Jackson defeat the British. (This is where readers are expected to swoon. He is, after all, the ideal rake.)
Unfortunately, he did some not-so-nice things, too. Like killing people and taking part in the slave trade. Oh, and making his fortune by stealing from others; no Robin Hood was this guy. He kept his booty for himself.
For the most part, I get it. It’s hard to write a sympathetic hero with that kind of shady past. But is there something else to the apprehension? Is there too much research involved in writing a story that features a real historical figure as the hero? Do readers prefer a make-believe pirate hero whose solid core of good is unquestionable better than one who is horribly flawed (and ultimately more realistic)? Was he just not very attractive? Or is there another factor at play that I’m missing?