When I saw The Pirate’s Son by Geraldine McCaughrean on the shelf at the library during one of our weekly library runs, I snatched it right up. I read McCaughrean’s The White Darkness last year and loved it, so I knew that a book by McCaughrean would likely not disappoint. I have to say that this one doesn’t. After going back and re-reading my thoughts on The White Darkness, I can see that McCaughrean likes to take mousy British schoolchildren (‘though from different centuries) and plunge them headlong into danger and adventure, for that’s just what she does again in The Pirate’s Son.
The Pirate’s Son is the story of Nathan Gull, his sister Maude, and Tamo White, the title character. Gull is a boring English schoolboy who reads and dreams of swashbuckling adventure. When his father dies and leaves him indebted to the school, Tamo White comes to his rescue with an offer that Nathan hasn’t the temerity to refuse in the face of such dire circumstances: flee England for Madagascar with him on a ship belonging to one of his guardians. Nathan, Maude, and Tamo quickly find that the trusted guardian isn’t what he appears, and the children end up escaping his clutches and eventually finding haven among the natives in a peaceful Malagasy village. Tamo, however, cannot escape what the village witchdoctor says is his fate: to be just like his father, the infamous pirate, Thomas White.
I don’t want to delve into the plot more than I have here in order to avoid spoilers, but there is much more to this book than just the plot. McCaughrean is a master at characterization. If this were just another book, Tamo White would’ve been fearless from beginning to end. However, McCaughrean turned my expectations on their ear when she made Tamo a real landlubber on the voyage back to Madagascar; he spends most of his time in the throes of seasickness, while the mewling Nathan Gull braves the voyage just fine. The real surprise in characterization, though, is in the character of mousy Maud Gull. Maud grows as a character so much that she is almost unreconizable, even to her own brother, by the end of the story. McCaughrean excels at characterization.
This is a book that I just plain old enjoyed reading because the writing is so good. McCaughrean is a very purposeful writer, so it is important to not miss a word in any sentence. I like that. Here are a few quotes to whet your appetite:
She was kneeling on something knobbly, and it hurt. So she swept her hand around the base of the chest and laid hold on one of Tamo’s pistols. Then she dared not let go, for fear it shoot her point blank. She could not have been more afraid to have sat on a ferret. (61)
At Graylake, Tamo had larned Latin and Greek, algebra and arithmetic. He had learned English history and how to drink coffee and bet on horses on race days. He had been the admiration of the boys and the pride of the masters. He was clever and quick to learn. But Tamo was not in England any longer. He was swimming away on a flood of strange superstitions, stranding his friends on their little island of Christianity. (85)
Gallant did not describe King Samson. He was small and bald, with a wig which he tied round his neck by its pigtails, and eczema which he picked. A big jeweled cross hung round his neck, along with a carved tusk of some kind, an oriental dagger in a velour sheath, and a big, tin spoon. The toe caps of his boots flapped loose from the soles, and the leather cuffs, which sagged round his ankles, had caught so many scraps of food as he ate that they were alive with cockroaches and earwigs. His neck was goitered, and bulged like a bullfrog’s, and his teeth were a thing only of memory; he had left them with a dentist in Accra so as not to be troubled by toothache. (139)
The White Darkness was a selection for last year’s Semicolon’s Biblically Literate Book Club, and I think that The Pirate’s Son would be another great selection for such a club. Although it is NOT a Christian novel as in published-by-a-Christian-publisher-with-the-plan-of-salvation-spelled-out-every-other-chapter, there are some spiritual issues to consider in this novel. Nathan’s Christianity really clashes with the religion (ancester worship, etc.) of the Madagascar natives, and he isn’t quite sure what to do about that. Maud doesn’t let her religion complicate things for her as much as Nathan does, and Tamo is sort of a chameleon, able to go from one culture to the other without much of a hiccup. I will confess that at times all of this made me a little uncomfortable, but a book really isn’t a good one (is it?) if it doesn’t cause us to THINK. In that vein, I love this line from the very end of the story:
There were amnesties other than the King’s. (294)
If you’re interested in Geraldine McCaughrean, you should check out her website. Better yet, just pick up one of her books. If you like thoughtful adventures, you won’t be disappointed.