In 1790, England had a new naval hero: a man who had saved the lives of more than a dozen sailors by navigating a 23-foot open boat over 4,000 miles a staggering feat of seamanship. William Bligh, late of the ship H.M.

S. Bounty, was the toast of the town. Captain Bligh? A hero? As everyone "knows'' thanks to Nordhoff and Hall's 1932 novel Mutiny on the Bounty and the various movies based on it, intrepid master's mate Fletcher Christian launched a mutiny against the tyrannical Captain Bligh, whom he set adrift in a launch with a handful of loyalists. Christian then led his followers to an idyllic existence on a South Pacific island. But real life has an inconvenient way of diverging from legend. Readers will find the true story in Caroline Alexander's The Bounty, a fascinating book based on court testimony, diaries and other primary sources that draws a picture very different from the popular version. Alexander, author of the equally excellent volume The Endurance, which told the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition, produces a vivid narrative with psychological depth and a keen understanding of historical context. Not that Alexander's Bligh is a saint. He was a perfectionist with an ugly temper. But his record was far better than that of many contemporary naval officers, and he didn't treat anyone unfairly by the standards of the time. As presented here, the mutiny wasn't a rebellion against oppression, but a personal clash between two men under pressure who misunderstood each other's motives. Ironically, even in Alexander's deft hands, Christian emerges as somewhat of a mystery, in part because he died under odd circumstances not long after he brought his crew to Pitcairn Island. Anne Bartlett is a journalist who lives in South Florida.

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