Monday, March 21, 2011

All I want is a fast ship ...

I really like what author Janet Taylor Lisle did in her 2006 novel about Prohibition in Rhode Island, Black Duck. Since she based the novel on true events [scroll down to the end of the article] -- the probably illegal shooting of the Duck's four crewmen by the Coast Guard as the Duck attempted to bring in a load of imported liquor on December 29, 1929 -- she couldn't build up to this finale. We know from the beginning what happened to the boat and its crew. Instead, Lisle creates a framing device of a modern teen hearing what "actually" happened from one of the [fictional] participants, 14-year-old Ruben Hart.

Ruben and his best friend Jeddy are beachcombing along Narragansett Bay when they stumble across a dead body. It's dressed up in evening clothes and wearing a gold watch. Ruben removes a pipe and tobacco pouch from the dead man's pocket, and then the two boys report their finding to the police. Jeddy's father is the small town's police chief. The police take forever to respond to the boys' telephone call, and when they all return to the beach, the body has disappeared, and the police don't seem particularly interested in finding it. Unbeknownst to Ruben, that tobacco pouch contained a "ticket" that rum runners used to identify themselves as the legitimate owners of a particular batch of booze to be smuggled into the states. It turns out that there are a lot of nasty people looking for that ticket.

Both Ruben and Jeddy know of the Black Duck, a legendary speedboat with souped-up engines that motors out beyond the U.S. ocean boundary, picks up a batch of booze, and speeds into an isolated cove along Narrangansett Bay where it is unloaded by groups of men paid the phenomenal sum of $20 for a night's work. With its airplane engines, the Duck's captain and crew have easily avoided the Coast Guard in the 10 years of the Noble Experiment, but the Coast Guard is on alert.

David Peterson, a 21st-century teenager, has discovered that Ruben Hart is living in his town and that Ruben possibly knows what really happened to the Black Duck. David's an aspiring reporter and hopes that by interviewing Ruben he'll get a scoop and his first big break. He has to earn Ruben's trust, but soon his story starts coming. And a very exciting story it is. [This photograph of the last day before Prohibition is from the Smithsonian Magazine.]

Black Duck truly qualifies as one of Laurie Halse Anderson's historical thrillers. Ruben is kidnapped by mobsters (looking for the ticket), knows that booze is being stored at the general store his father manages, helps to unload a shipment by the light of the moon, and knows what happened on the Black Duck on the night of December 29. The exciting story is enhanced by some big ideas: How crime (organized or otherwise) can just seep its way into a community and how easily the community can become complicit. Also, Lisle explores the nature of friendship, family and loyalty -- which is most important? I found it very compelling. The framing device is kind of creaky: David is more of a plot device than a character, as his motivation seems pretty weak. Still, he gets Ruben to tell his story. There are a couple of twists at the end that might surprise a younger reader.

David Ackroyd (heard here by me) reads the novel. His deep, ragged voice is pretty darn perfect for Ruben's narration -- the old man is a great storyteller. There's an underlying sadness to this tale as well, as Ruben's friendship with Jeddy is forever altered by the events in the novel. Ackroyd exposes those tender parts movingly. He also lightens up his voice when he's reading the dialogue of the two boys, as well as when reading the voice of Jeddy's older sister Marina.

There is a large cast of adult characters portrayed by Ackroyd, including mobsters, corrupt officials, cocky rum runners, parents, and a broken old man named Tom Morrison. He doesn't do a lot of voice characterization, but I had no problem following conversations. Ackroyd's skill lies, I think, in finding the emotion of the story he is telling. And ultimately, I hear the tragedy of Ruben's story loud and clear in Ackroyd's narration.

I was inspired to place this on hold by Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac. It had been hovering there in the I-should-read-this recesses of my mind, but Silvey's posting brought it to the forefront.

Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle
Narrated by David Ackroyd
Listening Library, 2007. 5:30

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