Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Book Review: Black Duck

Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle. (Grades 6-8)

When Ruben and his best friend Jeddy find a dead body on the beach in 1929, their lives change forever. A weird reaction from the local law enforcement causes Ruben to give the body some thought and he eventually discovers that the dead man was an infamous rum runner. During this time of Prohibition, rum runners bought booze from Canada or the West Indies and smuggled it into the country. Because the ships had to anchor in international waters, rum runners would load up small boats with the liquor and sneak it onto shore in the dead of night. Police were paid off to look the other way. But things are changing. Gangs from big cities are starting to control all the business and trying to stamp out the smaller independent bootleggers... including the local team that mans a ship called the Black Duck. Although Ruben and Jeddy have always been best friends, Jeddy, son of the local policeman, feels conflicted about getting involved with the rum runners. Ruben begins to see how much the rum-runners are infiltrating his hometown even as he himself gets swept up in their operations.

I read most of this book in the airport and on the plane on my way back from Orlando. It starts off a bit slowly, but picks up once Ruben gets caught up in the rum smuggling business. There are two storylines here. The first is set in modern day. A middle school boy named David is working on an article that he hopes will be published in the paper. He finds the elderly Ruben and attempts to interview him about the Black Duck. At first Ruben holds back, but as the two get to know each other over several weeks' time, Ruben tells him more and more of the story. Ruben's story is the main part of the book.

I had two favorite things about this book. The first is that Ruben tells David that none of the horrible stuff would have happened, had he and Jeddy just let well enough alone, if they hadn't pressed the issue with the dead body. I love this because I so often can't get on board with mysteries and adventure stories where the kids get all wrapped up in things they should just let the grownups handle.

My other favorite thing about this book is how it looks at morality and how its view of morality changes as the book progresses. Ruben knew the rum smuggling was bad, that it was illegal. As he takes a harder look at his town, though, he sees so many people caught up in it. His dad's boss is heavily involved and Ruben comes to realize that his dad is forced to look the other way or risk losing his job. The crewmen of the Black Duck are actually regarded as local heroes because they help out people in the area. They're bringing in lots of money in the time right after the stock market crash, and they're sharing it with those that need it. If they're helping so many people, how can they be all bad?

Ruben's best friend Jeddy is the son of the local policeman and he thinks he knows what's right. But it's the things he doesn't know that will bring about his betrayal and bring down the Black Duck. This book takes the things we know are "bad" and turns them all about so that we can look at them a different way.

Also reviewed by bookshelves of doom, Becky's Book Reviews, and Fuse #8.