As someone hoping to publish a YA novel set in the 20s, I try to often read YA novels set in the 20s. My husband was alerted to this book, a 2006 novel that I should look into. It was an easy choice when I saw the eaudio was available.
Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle
Summary from Goodreads:
It is spring 1929, and Prohibition is in full swing. So when Ruben and Jeddy find a dead body washed up on the shore of their small coastal Rhode Island town, they are sure it has something to do with smuggling liquor. Soon the boys, along with Jeddy’s strongwilled sister, Marina, are drawn in, suspected by rival bootlegging gangs of taking something crucial off the dead man. Then Ruben meets the daring captain of the Black Duck, the most elusive smuggling craft of them all, and it isn’t long before he’s caught in a war between two of the most dangerous prohibition gangs.
The book is aimed at more of a middle-grade level than my book will be, which I wasn’t expecting with the subject matter of the book. Gangsters with alcohol and guns are not normally aimed at middle schoolers, but the writing and the characters of this book were good for a middle-grade level. I didn’t find a lot of the ‘big revelations’ to be very surprising because the author set them up pretty obviously, but it was a good story. I wasn’t a huge fan of the ‘story within a story’ trope. It was hard for me to believe that Ruben would tell his story in such a professional manner and it would have seemed more natural to me for it to be a simple first person narrative instead of an oral story to a 13-year-old.
Lisle did a good job of creating characters. I liked how she led us to sympathize with the rum runners who were employing local guys and were only breaking laws that no one supported. The New York and Boston mobsters were portrayed in a bad way, understandably, but I liked Billy’s outfit. I thought Marina was a great addition to the story. I only loosely understood her purpose in the story at first, but I grew to like her character a lot and thought she was a great tie-in to the plot. I thought their opinions and actions represented 1929 well.
Ruben was a great protagonist. It was easy to follow and agree with his thought pattern and he never did anything out of character that made me frustrated with him. I rooted for him the whole time and got frustrated at Jeddy with him. I liked him for being friends with Tom and for trying to do what his father wanted him to do.
Part of what made Ruben a great character was how easy it was to relate to him. I remember a lot of the feelings he describes from my youth even though I didn’t live through prohibition or get kidnapped by a mob. I had fights with my friends. I had secrets I was afraid to tell my parents. I hated to hide things from people but was afraid what they’d say if I told them I knew. I saw things I wish I hadn’t seen. Ruben’s experiences were universal but culminated in a great adventure. Of that I was jealous.
Without spoiling it, I’ll say that the ending was my favorite part. I thought the story culminated in a great adventure with the Black Duck. I think the relationships that formed as a result of that adventure were very fitting and showed a great arc from the beginning of the story. I would never have expected that ending from what I read at the beginning and that made me appreciate what Lisle was able to do with her characters.
I didn’t have a specific part that I disliked, but there were parts of the book I thought were slow and I think that’s the nature of reading middle-grade fiction as an adult. It comes off as childish, rightfully so, and as an adult reader, I was a bit frustrated by it. I had the whole ‘Get on with it!’ mentality, just wanting to see the book through to the end. That’s the main reason I couldn’t fully enjoy the story.
The audiobook I listened to was narrated by David Ackroyd. I thought he did a good job of building tension with his narration and storytelling. I was disappointed that he didn’t use voice inflection to differentiate the characters so that Marina sounded much like Ruben. I would have liked to see a little bit more of this.
Like many prohibition stories, the story has a good message about right and wrong not being a black and white thing. Jeddy thinks it’s that simple, that mobsters are bad and cops are good. By that logic, his dad is the best of them all. But as the reader, we know that Chief MacKenzie is dealing with some shady stuff and that Charlie is mixed up in the worst of it. Billy would seem to be a bad guy, but he’s able to help out a lot of guys who are down on their luck. It’s good to show a middle-grade audience that these choices and designations are not always easy.
Writer’s Takeaway: The ‘story within a story’ structure didn’t work for me and is the main thing I would have changed were it my story. I felt that the only main purpose it showed was that [SPOILER] Ruben and Marina ended up together. I didn’t think that was worth structuring the book in such a way. The story could have been a first-person narrated flashback, told entirely by Ruben without David being involved at all. I didn’t think David added anything to the story.
Overall, a good middle-grade book, but not one a lot of adults will enjoy. Three out of Five stars.
Until next time, write on.
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