Review of the Day: Black Duck
How do you resist the siren call of a book when your co-workers (who are ALL children's librarians) are singing its praises yea unto the highest of heavens? Ah, “Black Duck”. Winner of this year’s least-enticing-cover award (at least from a child reader viewpoint), it's proof positive that Janet Taylor Lisle is back, baby! And the subject of her latest fascination? Rumrunners. By and large, I avoid historical fiction like it was the plague itself. But there’s only so long that your average joe (average joe = me) can ignore a whole host of children’s literature specialists who think a particular item is heaven on earth. And so I read “Black Duck” and found a rather nice book. I don’t think I’m quite as taken with it as some folks out there, but I think I can safely say that when it comes to Prohibition Era children’s books, Lisle’s latest effort has more subtlety and sheer intelligence than pretty much any other title covering the same subject. You want your kids to be mindlessly amused? Give ‘em something light n’ fluffy. You want them to be challenged and possibly haunted by the world’s shifting morality? Black Duck ‘em.
David’s almost a freshman in high school, but he’s already figured out what he wants to do with his life. He wants to be a reporter. That means finding something to report on, and in a town like Newport there’s not much for a kid to find. That is, until David uncovers an old time rumrunner by the name of Ruben Hart. At first, Hart is reluctant to divulge what he knows about the past. Yes, he heard of the infamous rumrunning vessel The Black Duck that was gunned down by a Coast Guard cutter. Beyond that, he won’t say anything ... at first. As David and Ruben get to know one another better, however, the elder of the two begins to tell his tale. It’s a story of living in a time of constant corruption and thievery. As a kid, Ruben and his best friend Jeddy were inseparable. Then they found a dead body on the beach and everything changed. With infinite skill, Lisle teases out a story the concerns itself with how one does what is “right” when “right” is no longer as clear as it once was.
One of the things I liked most about Lisle’s writing was how she could take a small, almost incidental character like David, and with a minimum of words suddenly conjure up an entire backstory. Lisle has a talent for knowing exactly what words to use when. It doesn’t hurt matters any that Lisle’s language takes the cake. Sentences like, “It was the sort of spring night that makes you want to leap like a wild animal”, or, “It must be a law of nature, David thinks, that when folks get old, everything around them ages too”. Add in the factual information that’s peppered throughout this narrative and you’ve got yourself one heckuva good book. Kids will read this thing and find themselves learning fact after fact without even realizing it. Lisle even includes an Author’s Note with additional information on the real Black Duck and its fate. A Bibliography wouldn’t have hurt any, but since this is fiction anyway I wouldn’t insist upon it.
The focus of this book, its core, is based on the choices its characters make. I’ve never seen such an effective morality play for kids, to tell you the truth. Jeddy’s father is the town’s police chief, so his son sees the world as simply as possible. If you commit a crime you go to jail. End of story. As the book says, “Fog wasn’t something Jeddy could deal with”. For Ruben, it’s far more difficult. To keep his job, his father is forced to assist in rumrunning. And then, of course, there are different kinds of rumrunners. There are the big mafia types from New York and Boston, and then there are the local boys like The Black Duck, who have the town’s heart. How do you decide what is right and what is wrong when everybody is ignoring the rules? What does that do to you if you’re a kid looking on?
I should point out that this is not a book for reluctant readers, by any means. The book begins slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I found myself having to push myself forward for about three or four chapters. Once you break that initial barrier, though, it gets easier. “Black Duck” may find itself a difficult sell to the child population. It’s up to librarians to booktalk it beautifully and parents to encourage their kiddies with it. Tell ‘em it’s about the criminal underworld, illegal hootch, and involves the hero getting kidnapped, shot at, and who pickpockets the dead. That’ll get ‘em! It’s definitely a worthwhile read and smart as a whip. It’s not for everyone. Just the ones lucky enough to appreciate it.