It took me longer to read Dead Reckoning, a work of historical fiction for young adults, than it has taken me to read anything in a long, long time, which isn’t a reflection of the book at all, but rather on where my mind has been (or more accurately, where it hasn’t been). This piece of historical fiction by Laurie Lawlor is the story of a fifteen year old boy named Emmet who is kidnapped by Sir Francis Drake to serve as his page on the voyage which becomes Drake’s circumnavigation of the earth. Emmet is Drake’s cousin, although Emmet doesn’t really know him. According to Drake’s horoscope, Emmet must attend him on his next voyage. Emmet is an orphan, apprenticed to recently-deceased monk who served as the the village doctor and priest, and Emmet learned all sorts of learned skills from Father Parfoothe: Latin and Greek and conjuring and healing through chants and charms. Emmet’s world is naturally turned upside down when he becomes a seaman. He learns all sorts of things and gradually learns to hold his own on board a ship which quickly goes from being merchant vessel to a pirate ship and Drake’s personality goes from a little extreme to megalomaniacal. Emmet suffers loss, rejection, and fear on board the ship, but in the end he learns to protect himself, even taking extreme measures to insure his independence.
Despite the fact that this book languished far too long on my nightstand, I really enjoyed it. I like historical fiction a lot, and this period in history is not one I’ve read much about. Also, besides The Pirate’s Son (linked to my review), I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel about pirates, so it really gave me a lot to think about. Maybe my inexperience with the topic explains why the violence in the story took me by surprise. (Generally, pirates are cute, sanitized characters in children’s literature, and they’re not something I think too much about, anyway.) I can’t quite figure out if I think the fact that I was so surprised by how quickly Emmet’s character changed and succumbed to the pirates’ ways is a sign of the weakness of human character or if I think it’s a weakness in the plotting and pacing of the story. Anyway, we have a front seat in Emmet’s transformation from a weak landlubber to a pirate himself, and then somewhat back again, although he’ll never again be the weak and naive boy he was at the beginning of the story. The violence in the story isn’t graphic, but it is gratuitous in the truest sense of the word–the pirates often literally commit the acts they do just for the sake of doing them. This book could engender all kinds of interesting discussions about the nature of violence and how people get caught up in what other people are doing, as well as native peoples’ interactions with European explorers, etc. The bottom line: it’s an interesting story about an interesting time period, and I enjoyed it. There’s also a lot more to it, should you care to take more away from it. (Simon & Schuster 2005)