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During the days of "Wooden Ships and Iron Men", midshipmen were apprentice officers. Most midshipmen started their naval careers at the age of 11 or 12, working on various ships while they learned seamanship, navigation, and the other skills an officer would need to lead a ship full of men. Most were the younger children of the landed gentry. In terms of authority, Midshipmen were considered the lowest ranking of all the officers on a ship, but regardless of age were treated as officers by the rest of the crew with all the responsibilities and authority that comes with it.
The word "midshipman" derives from the term "amidships", referring to the portion of the ship in which they lived and slept. During the 19th century training of naval officers in both the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy changed toward formal schooling in a naval college as opposed to an apprenticeship aboard ships, and the term "midshipman" changed to indicate an officer cadet.
The Plucky Middie is thus a special kind of Child Soldier commonly seen in rousing tales of the sea. This character will be found serving on a tall-sailed Man-o-War alongside the stouthearted crew, sailing into adventure. His existence allows the creator to combine a coming-of-age story with a period naval adventure. Plucky Middies are always, well, plucky. They always show tremendous initiative, and braver than brave, and though they endure hardships like bullying and bad food, they always rise to the occasion and sometimes find themselves in charge.
The trope is perhaps the result of exaggeration by Victorian authors, who knew of course that a large part of their audience would be teenage boys who sucked up naval adventure stories as quickly as they could. This is likely the reason for a lot of romanticized portrayals of Child Soldiers in general.
- Koby from One Piece. He wanted to join the navy ever since he was abducted by pirates when he was young, and once he did, is more than eager to do any of the hard training or chores. He's been promoted since then.
- Noonan, the father figure from 'Hitman' got into this situation in WW 2. It provided a tragic backstory because naturally, when the ship got into trouble, he was tossed first into the lifeboats.
- Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, although Hornblower was 17 when he became a midshipman.
- Mister Midshipman Easy by Marryat
- Emily Roland from the Temeraire books. While she only made midshipman (or rather the dragon-crew equivalent, midwingman) in the latest book she starts as one of Laurence's runners and is later promoted to ensign.
- Note that she is being explicitly groomed for command, to take over as Excidium's captain when her mother retires. This informs many of Captain Laurence's choices when he would rather keep her out of the line of fire.
- Larry Niven's The Mote in God's Eye features three plucky midshipmen IN SPACE!. They discover the evil conspiracy behind Motie society. And die heroically trying to escape with the information.
- The Bolitho series is long enough that many middies under the main character go on to become captains under his command decades later. One, his nephew Adam Pascoe, eventually takes over as series protagonist some 20 years after he first appeared at the age of fourteen.
- Midshipman's Hope, by David Feintuch, is all about this trope; not just the protagonist, but his fellow midshipmen, play a pivotal role in the story and become men. In the background, they may join the navy at age 13 and be sent on long-range space voyages at 14.
- The Honor Harrington series, being Horatio Hornblower In Space, often features Plucky Middies In Space. They are most notably present in the side novels, especially the Saganami Island ones. Honor is one herself in the prequel story "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington".
- Might even count as a Subversion as well: They go on their Middie Cruise only after completing their studies at the Saganami Island Military Academy, but given the effects of the Prolong treatments everybody gets, they would appear to be in their teens, not reaching full physical maturity until some time in their late twenties.
- The Safehold series takes place in a setting where Weber can use the original version of this trope. Midshipman Aplyn is eleven years old at the Battle of Darcos Sound.
- In Cloud Atlas, there is an eager young lad serving aboard the ship in the first/last section. He has just signed on to the crew and while not an officer, certainly seems to be an homage to this character-type. Then he gets raped by the first mate after passing out during his initiation for crossing the equator the first time. He kills himself as a result, the protagonist doesn't take it well, but nobody else on the ship seems to care
- Deryn Sharp loves her ship very much. Unlike most middies, her ship might love her back.
- Mostly averted in the Bloody Jack series. Since the first book focuses on the Ships' Boys, the Middies are more a foil for the bravery and wit of the protagonists. One of the Middies is a violent bully who targets our protagonist, as well as the other Midshipmen. One of the other Middies more of less earns the epithet 'plucky' after Jacky fires him up with pep talk and teaches him to fight dirty, and he eventually takes on his bullying shipmate in a fair fistfight. Since the place of 'plucky child crew-members' is being occupied in the story by the Boys, the Middies don't get story action besides this. However, since the best of the Boys are promoted to Midshipman rank by the end of the book, they they themselves eventually qualify for this trope.
- Even though she doesn't keep the formal rank long Jacky herself combines Plucky Middie with Plucky Girl by taking command of two separate ships when all of the deck officers are absent or incapacitated. In the second case the crew chose her over a superior (but supernumary) officer, even though she was technically under arrest for piracy at the time.
- Played with in the Aubrey-Maturin saga. Some of the middies start out inexperienced, but prove themselves and rise up the chain of command, as in the cases of Pullings, Babbington and Mowett. Others, like Blakeney, are more known for causing trouble such as swallowing the ship's grapeshot.
- Master and Commander The Far Side of The World featured plucky Midshipmen Blakeney and Calamy, who look to be about twelve and fourteen years old, respectively. During the climactic battle, Blakeney (the twelve year old) is actually in command of the ship at one point and leads a boarding party of adult sailors in a boarding action. Calamy is given the mission of freeing prisoners, gets a Heroic Sacrifice moment, and is promoted to Lieutenant posthumously. (He died an acting third lieutenant, and his status at death would have been recorded as such on the ship's muster.)
- Used in the film of Captain Horatio Hornblower in which a plucky midshipman gives Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo the opportunity to be parental, and dies tragically.
Live Action TV
- Sci-fi example, Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher in Star Trek TNG. In early seasons he was the Plucky Middie In Space!
- Also Nog in Deep Space 9
- Horatio Hornblower, as mentioned above, includes a few of these, though Horatio himself is unusually old to be a midshipman. In the third series, notably, the Hotspur has two midshipmen, the capable Orrock, who plays this straight, and Hammond, an aversion, being rather incompetent. Orrock survives, but Hammond is shot and dies after one episode. It's pretty much stated that his motivation for joining the Navy is purely familial, and his admiration of Hornblower prompted him to serve on the Hotspur.
- Tom the Cabin Boy from Captain Pugwash is the only member of the crew who actually does anything.
- George VI was this during World War I. He was promoted Sublieutenant in time to serve at the Battle of Jutland.
- Several famous naval officers had once been this, naturally enough.
- There was a dark side which is seldom mentioned. This custom often ended up with youths being given a shocking amount of authority long before they were mature enough to handle it. While some Plucky Middies became good officers, it wasn't unknown for them to be sadistic tyrants.
- Another dark side is what happened to Middies who weren't sufficiently plucky. Sent home in disgrace if they were lucky, marooned overseas or worse if they weren't.
- Porky Pig as the Space Cadet in Duck Dodgers.