The story also unfolds on the decks of an 18th century English warship (a tired theme) and written in the first person (I, I, I, I….).
But we were wrong. Very wrong. And, we knew it within the first few pages. That’s because we were hooked.
L.A. Meyer has written a compelling story that kept us engaged and interested from page 1 through page 288 even without traditional action devices like ship battles, hand-to-hand combat, or storms.
The story follows the early years of Mary “Jacky” Faber, a young girl about eight or nine years old when she starts out orphaned in 1797. She is forced onto the dangerous, gang-infested streets of London’s slums after her parents and sister die from disease. She joins a homeless street gang to survive, but realizes that she wants more out of life than begging and scavenging for food.
Mary catches a break when she disguises herself as a boy, changes her name to “Jack”, and joins the HMS Dolphin, a 44-gun frigate, as a ship’s boy. The Dolphin has been dispatched to chase down pirates, first corsairs off the North African Coast, and then buccaneers in the West Indies. Jacky doesn’t really care—she’s more interested in having a reliable meal and is grateful for her first bath in years. She never does get over the fact she’s being paid for her services!
The perspective of a young ship’s boy turns out to be an excellent one for observing the harsh life of seamen on an 18th century man-of-war. Since the lead character is a girl, everyday issues like what to wear, where to “relieve yourself”, and how to sleep become entertaining conflicts that propel the story. Afterall, where does a girl take care of daily necessities among 400 men and boys? What happens when a girl, disguised as a boy, falls for a one of her shipmates? What happens when her shipmate, who doesn’t know she is a girl, begins to have romantic ideas about her?
The answers make for real tension and conflict boosted even further by a few real fights with pirate ships, several brushes with death, and a face-to-face meeting with a sadistic pirate named LeFievre. There’s a reason why Jacky Faber gets the nickname “Bloody Jack”, and Mary’s not to happy with it even though her shipmates are impressed.
Meyer’s ability to weave the day-to-day life of a seaman into Jacky Faber’s life made for a fast and smooth read. The detail of seafaring life is as rich (if not richer) than C.S. Forester’s series chronicling the career of Horatio Hornblower. Those more attuned to writing will appreciate the subtle way Meyer shifts language to reflect Faber’s own coming of age and education.
Bloody Jack would be a worthy addition to any library on pirates and pirating as well as any bookshelf filled with good fiction and stories.
What do you think?