How To Build A Tin Canoe
Confessions of an Old Salt
by Robb White
Review by Peter H. Vanderwaart

This is a book of apparently biographical stories, seemingly arranged in chronological order. I say 'apparently' because the disclaimer at the front says flatly that none of the stories are true. Maybe, but my guess is that none of them is false either. Sam Glassock, a contributor to the Yahoo! Bolger Group, offered the following insight:

If you read the stories by RW in MAIB for a while you begin to realize that RW is writing about a character, "Robb White", of his own creation. This character is what we call in Delaware a progger--a self-reliant countryman--and an irascible, opinionated, reactionary curmudgeon of the first order. RW writes too well not to be making fun of himself along with everything else. This is self-caricature of the most enjoyable kind, in my opinion, and I think should be read in that light.

What can we determine about Robb White, the writer, from Robb White, the character? A fair amount.

Robb White is a naturalist. He seems to know the habits of every kind of creature living near the Georgia-Florida border, and he knows them from personal study and observation. He admits, somewhat begrudgingly, to a university education in marine science and oceanography. In the book, flora and fauna are identified variously by Latin names, accepted common names, and local nicknames. In true scientific spirit, he does not blame natural things for anti-human habits like poisoning and sticking with spines, though he does admit that biting insects can be an annoyance.

Robb White is a mechanic. The book doesn't say how he learned about motors and other machinery. I suspect that, as a child, he took everything apart when his mother's back was turned - most of the time, to hear him tell it - and put things back together before anyone noticed. I'm sure he has never owned a motor, in boat, car or weedwacker, about which he did know the intimate details of the carburetor and ignition.

Robb White is G & T. If you live in a district with a good school system, you may have a program for the Gifted and Talented, designed to relieve the hellish burden that school places on middle schoolers who are too smart and too quick to stand the boredom of being offered knowledge at everyman's pace. Schools being bureaucracies, placement in these programs is often by IQ test, but the true G&T is not just smart, but a quick and relentless autodidact. It is difficult to discover anything that a G&T does not know about his chosen field of knowledge.

Robb White is a storyteller. If his purpose is to tell you how to catch a fish, he gives you, not instructions, but a story about how to catch a fish. He's a writer, but not a Writer. White's contributions to Messing About in Boats have an almost violent, stream-of-consciousness flow. I picture him in the near dark, hunched over an ancient Underwood manual-hard to imagine him using anything electric- pounding madly away with two fingers, the finished pages stuffed into and envelope and mailed without edit. The stories in the book have been polished some, but not until they gleam. They retain a certain patina.

Robb White is boatbuilder. It's not so much a vocation as a medical condition. His comments on the business remind me of the story about a boatbuilder who won a big sum in the lottery. Asked what he was going to do with the money, he reckoned he'd just keep on building boats 'till the money ran out.

Robb White is a popular philosopher. His words:

I call it "the rule of joy." Simply put, it says, "The important thing ain't comfort, it's joy." Joy in boats is inverse to their size. When they get big and full of engines, batteries, toilets, stoves, and other comforts, there just ain't as much room for joy. All those things are like a bunch of relatives that vote wrong. Not only do they cancel out the good you are trying to do, they can beat you, and there is nothing you can do about it.

If you are an English teacher, you may wonder why his editor didn't lean on him a little harder, but if you like quirky stories, you'll like the book. If you like fishing in thin water, you'll like the book. If you like eating seafood (especially just caught and raw), you'll like the book. If you like to take little boats on big water, you'll like the book. If you like stories about tugboats and barges, odd and ancient machinery, blind captains and unreliable crew, beautiful senoritas and bible-thumping preachers, you'll like the book. If you like Robb White, and who doesn't, you'll like the book.

Peter Vanderwaart