Character Study: Max & Dash (The Pup & The Pianist)

Max is 13-year-old powder monkey on a British navy ship during the Napoleonic Wars. Dash is a 16-year-old French midshipman who meets Max when he’s stranded – and blind – on the Galapagos Islands. Where did I get the idea to write a story about two young enemies who meet when they’re shipwrecked? The first concept for this story started when I wrote a flash fiction piece in 2014 called “Justice”. (A note if you want to read The Pup & The Pianist: There will be spoilers in this post, so if you don’t want to read it before checking out my story, it’s best to stop reading).

I always wanted to write a story set during the age of sail, especially during The Napoleonic Wars. I enjoyed the movie Master & Commander immensely and I ate up the Hornblower TV miniseries. There’s just something about the era that interests me, sailing in particular. I was shocked when I first realized that children were often aboard warships – boys from middle class families could be midshipman and they were often lieutenants by the age of 18. Children as young as nine or ten would work as powder monkeys on a man of war.

Max is an optimistic lad who has already been through enough dark times, but he tries to see the best in every situation. Because his mother was poor and her health was rapidly declining, she took him to the docks to find him work aboard a warship. It’s a cold and barbaric thing to do, but in that era it was common enough, especially for poor families. Childhood as we see it today is apparently a newer concept. Max goes from being a little boy who spends every day with his mother to a powder monkey expected to transport gunpowder to cannons while the ship is under fire. He doesn’t quite fit in with the crew since he’s so much younger than most of the sailors and too old to play with the younger powder monkeys. The boys around his age are all midshipmen; his agitation at the obvious class difference between him and them adds some tension to his happy-go-lucky personality.

Dash came from a wealthy family in France. His academic excellence, musical talent, athletic ability, and looks weren’t enough for him to get by. He also needed to prove himself by joining the war and move up the ranks in the French navy. This is what makes his eventual blindness more painful – he seemingly had it all until he joined the war. This shows yet another atrocity of allowing children to fight in battle – it’s terrible enough when a grown man is maimed or disabled from war, but allowing a teenager to put life and limb (and eyesight) on the line is insane. Yet this was a common thing back then. A boy’s family name and reputation meant a lot in society – apparently more than his life. When Dash finds himself blind and in the company of a British boy, his entire world falls apart – everything he has ever wanted has been taken away from him and now he’s stuck with an enemy.

Max’s compassion overrides the propaganda he’s been fed about the French; he takes pity on the wounded enemy and takes care of him. Angry and suffering from PTSD, Dash threatens to kill Max and himself. Max suffers from his experiences as well, but doesn’t become violent. His trauma is shown more in his quick attachment to Dash – and how he loses the will to live when Dash turns on him later in the story. Dash is reluctant to trust Max as he decides if life is going to be worth living or not.

Their obvious class differences add another wall between them – Dash is rich and French. Historically, the French haven’t viewed British people to be as classy, intelligent, or progressive. Add in that Max is a few years younger than Dash and there’s another reason for him to feel superior. I wrote Dash’s adjustment to blindness as being quick. Oftentimes, one’s senses are strengthened after becoming blind and this would be expedited by the need to survive on an island. He can get around on his own easily enough after Max has led the way – and he catches crabs and prepares a fire without help. His youth and natural go-getter personality allows him to adjust faster to this significant change, despite his obvious depression about it.

As the boys spend more time together, they find that they have a common interest in music. Their differences become interesting as they get to know one another. When Max needs Dash, Dash does come for him at the last moment. He sees Max’s kindness and he develops very strong feelings for him near the end. Max fell for Dash pretty early on, being naïve and easily impressed by bravery and strength. I hint at this when he stops to stare at Dash – Dash asks why he’s staring at him (He doesn’t know for sure that he is since he can’t see, but he can sense a change in mood, a halting in Max’s footsteps, etc.).

These two characters are very dear to my heart. I’m deeply saddened at the idea of children having to fight in wars – and today as you’re reading this blog post, there are still child warriors who are forced to endure unspeakable things because of war. In writing this story about Max and Dash, I hoped to give a voice to all children killed or injured in war. Kids should always be protected and wars should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, not everyone in the world agrees with this sentiment. Sometimes, even in the darkest situations, strong friendships can form.

When they are separated, Max is very heartbroken, but the hard life at sea keeps him pre-occupied. Unfortunately, he doesn’t survive the storm on the way back to England. The last thing he sees before he passes is a vision of Dash without his burns – he has dark eyes and smooth olive skin. He tells Dash that he always saw him this way. While Dash is asleep, he has the same vision. They hold one another a final time.

(Spoiler alert): I believe that Dash would search Max out and when he discovered that he was killed by the sea, he would become an activist for children to protect them from wars and manual labour jobs. Max’s love for Dash was a gift. He talked him out of suicide and helped him see his true value despite being blinded. Dash will now live the rest of his life with purpose because of his love and friendship with Max.

In case you haven’t read The Pup & Pianist, it’s completely free now on my blog! You can binge read all the chapters here. I hope you enjoy it!

(Photo by Thaís Silva from Pexels)