Carl V. over at Stainless Steel Droppings wrote a fantastic (spoiler-free) review for Paolo Bacigalupi’s YA novel and 2011 Printz Winner Ship Breaker. His synopsis is better than the dust jacket at giving you the gist and luring you into the read:
Ship Breaker, inspired in part by the actual industry for which it is named, follows a young teenage protagonist, Nailer, as he lives the hard and dangerous life of salvaging materials from derelict oil tankers, left over from the Accelerated Age. Nailer and the crew he works with live a thankless and poor existence, trusting to the Fates and hoping for a lucky strike that will allow them to rise above their squalid conditions. One night a “city killer” storm visits the beach, raining down death and destruction. The next day, as Nailer and his crew mate Pima search the area, they come across an unexpected boon: the wreckage of a clipper ship, filled with the kind of salvage that could make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. There is only one problem–a beautiful young girl has survived the crash and she needs help, the kind of help that can only mean one thing: danger! What is a boy to do? ~Carl V.
Please read Carl V.’s review and read Ship Breaker. As for below? notes…an omphaloskepsis re-view.
Little, Brown & Co, 2010.
323 pages, hardcover.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that a second Ship Breaker book will follow in 2011 called The Drowned Cities. Ship Breaker does not read like a first book in a series, though once noticing a second book in the offing, I could see where possibilities were opened toward the end of the novel. I am unsure how I feel about a second book to the first, but I am relieved that Bacigalupi is continuing to publish in the YA marketplace.
You ever been asked, or wondered yourself, what book could I gift an adolescent male? I have accumulated a short fail-safe list in my mind. Ship Breaker is a fail-safe choice. I would not limit it to the male only audience, but finding a book for the female adolescent is less of an issue. Except, perhaps the female reader, like those males, who would like the main cast to be a little less white and a little less privileged?
Notably, the cast is decidedly not pale of skin, with the exception of Sloth. Pima, their boss girl, taller than the rest and filling out like a woman, black as oil and hard as iron. Sloth, skinny and pale, bones and knots of knees and dirty blond hair, the next candidate for duct-and-scuttle work when Nailer got too big, her pale skin almost permanently sunburned and peeling. Moon Girl, the shade of brown rice, […] Tick-tock, nearsighted and always squinting at everything around him, almost as black as Pima but nowhere near as smart, […] Pearly, the Hindu […] black hair and dark tropic skin. (9)
Nailer himself has “brown skin and black hair like his dead mother, but with weird pale blue eyes like his father” (10). The inhabitants of the Ship Breaking Yards come from all over the globe.
[It is hard to say whether this was a conscious decision or no, that the back-stabbing Sloth was white (Irish-descent, 10). Bacigalupi does not shy away from his story/characters making Culturally-provocative statements. Poverty, however, desperate straits, in Ship Breaker is a great equalizer, and females are incredibly vulnerable.]
Then there is Nita, the wealthy young lady from the clipper, who is “a far lighter brown, untouched by the sun, with long black flowing hair,” “dark glittering eyes” (108). Nita is easily a representative source for derision as a member of the “Swank,” those born to privilege and wealth.
Tool: “That woman [Sadna] is worth ten times whatever your wealthy father is worth. A thousand times what you are, whatever your enemies may foolishly think.” “Don’t tell me about worth,” Nita said. “My father commands fleets.” “The wealthy measure everything with the weight of their money.” (197)
Nita: “Don’t we already have enough drowned cities? Enough people dying from drought? My family is a clean company. Just because a market exists doesn’t mean we have to serve it.” Nailer laughed. “You trying to tell me you blood buyers got some kind of clean conscience? Like making some petrol is different than buying our blood and rust out on the wrecks for your recycling?” […] “The only reason you think you’ve got morals is because you don’t need money the way regular people do.” (194)
Ship Breaker fairly seethes with contempt for the wealthy at points. The futurist setting shows a world polarized; the moneyed and those scraping by. While futurist, the setting is hardly unrecognizable.
The sympathies of the story resides with its protagonist Nailer who lives in a world that is all about surviving from day to day, and where kill-or-be-killed is a familiar idea. That Nailer can still identify with Sloth’s actions (to an extent) testifies to the brutal life in the Ship Yard where the peoples could easily be labeled savage in existence, in appearance, and action.
And yet, Bacigalupi isn’t afraid to challenge a singularly weighted gaze in Ship Breaker. Tool makes a remark that seems unusual to his character, and yet not unexpected as he is an unexpected character. Regardless it is a moment that had me pausing in the midst of the general anti-swank campaign. “Spending money on the poor is like throwing money into a fire. They’ll just consume it and never thank you” (209). Ship Breaker isn’t merely interested in entertaining, nor would it provide only a singularly biased perspective; Ship Breaker is 3rd person, not 1st, and the characters would be appropriately complicated, as would the ideas.
The third-person limited follows Nailer who is slowly evolving outward from the world in which he was born. His decisions that counter culturally-excused behaviors are not easy and wholly rewarded; but these decisions set him on a path that moves away from Hopelessness. Nailer struggles against the expectations of the world around him, as well as his own. He’ll always carry the weight of his past, but he needn’t be borne down by them.
At the beginning Nailer is no better than his peers. If anything, he is at a greater disadvantage in some ways, namely having the father that he does. Nailer, like his peers, is illiterate, has extremely limited options and resources. He has little hope but meet the daily quota in hopes of surviving another day. Like the others, he is working at an early age, drinking, smoking, tattooed, pierced, familiar with a knife.
Bacigalupi doesn’t assign Nailer a definite age removing him somewhat from that construct.
“How old are you? Fourteen? Fifteen? You look so starved, I can’t tell.” Nailer shrugged. “Pima was sixteen, I think. And she was older than me…” He shrugged. “You don’t know?” Nailer shrugged again. “Doesn’t really matter. Either you’re small enough for light crew, or you’re big enough for heavy crew…” (250-1).
Nailer’s continued existence is perilous, ever an eye on the future yet still understanding that another day is hardly guaranteed. Luck is a pervasive interest amongst the ship breakers.
“And your people value luck,” the captain said.
“My people. Yeah, ship breakers like the lucky eye. Not much else to hang on to when you’re on the wrecks.”
“Skill? Hard work?”
Nailer laughed. “They’re nice. But they only get you so far. Look at you. You got yourself a swank ship and a swank life.”
“I’ve worked very hard for what I have.”
“Still born swank,” Nailer pointed out. “Pima’s mom works a thousand times harder than you and she’s never going to have a life as nice as what you got on this boat.” (253)
Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker offers perspective. Social commentaries abound. I particularly appreciated this one.
I like that Bacigalupi follows this conversation with the fact that no matter how hard Nailer was willing to work, or how capable he was at the work, the clipper wouldn’t give him a position. Positions were already taken, the competition already fierce (261). Luck/the Fates would have to favor Nailer, proving his point.
While Ship Breaker is undoubtedly sympathetic toward survivors, it would not excuse just anyone, blaming their behavior on their situation: Nailer’s father for example (10). Against Sadna (Pima’s mother) Richard Lopez is stripped of his excuses. Nor would Ship Breaker allow the excuse of Genetics.
“If genes were destiny, then Nailer should have sold you to your enemies and spent the bounty on red rippers and Black Ling whiskey. […] You descend from Patels, and so you are all intelligent and civilized, yes? And Nailer, of course, is descended from a perfect killer and we know what that means about him.” (212).
Tool to Nailer: “Blood is not destiny, no matter what others may believe.” (248)
At the same time, Nailer can make use of traits he has inherited from his father (his build, his speed, his grit), he needn’t deny his parentage completely. He can reinterpret, use traits positively. Relationships are hardly easy and Bacigalupi doesn’t not rob the Reader or his characters of this; no one makes flawless, seamless transitions—Nita is perhaps the perfect example of this.
First, back to Tool because I found him to be of great interest. Tool functions as a sage, an enlightened figure, a strange role-model. Tool is a Half-Man, a “creature mixed from a genetic cocktail of humanity, tigers, and dogs” (212), (248 adds Hyena).
“[Tool]’s supposed to have a patron. We take them on their oaths. My family imports them from Nippon, after training.” […] “You’re supposed to die with your masters. That’s what ours always say. That they’ll die when we do, that they will die for us.” (210-11)
“Lucky girl is disappointed to discover that not all of us enjoy slavery.” (211)
Tool is a fascination in that he is ever on his own side, with few exceptions. Nailer would be the only character (other than Sadna) who could be considered a Hero, but Tool as an anti-hero is brilliantly realized. He is a course that Nailer might take, an alternative to Richard Lopez’s course. That Tool holds similitude with Nailer is of interest, Nailer was “half of something, a quarter of something else” (10); also enslaved. Tool has gotten out and lives by his own terms (whether agreeable or no), perhaps Nailer can too. But the cost, what will it take? Outside forces often intervene for Nailer “Lucky Boy” and at times might appear to force his hand, but Ship Breaker makes it clear (via internal dialogue) that Nailer always has the choice, and he always minds the consequence.
But Nailer is a risk-taker, “You swanks are damn soft. You’re afraid to gamble even when you’re already dead” (287). The novel sets up the character of Nailer early, in the ducts, lungs at risk, drowning in oil, impaled by poisonous scrap. He’ll take the gamble, because he is already dead.
Nita and the slow transition. That Nita is beautiful saves her. She captures Nailer’s imagination, and admittedly gets his hormones roused. I appreciated that the novel was not overrun with quaint romance or a constant thrum of adolescent arousal. Bacigalupi doesn’t castrate Nailer either.
It is painful when Nita dismisses Nailer, yet necessary as it is evident that Nita is a character with cultural baggage of her own. I’m not sure how likable she becomes, but any like is late coming. Just when the story turns in her favor she says/does something that betrays her. Her own resurrection from the water (alongside Nailer) facilitates a dependable turning point from the old Nita to a new one. She doesn’t become empty-headed enamored with Nailer to facilitate change.
Carl V. mentioned in his review that Bacigalupi does not insult the intelligence of his YA audience, and Carl’s right.
Bacigalupi does well in illustrating the mind-sets of his variously placed characters, creating interesting discussions; and creating boundaries. There is so much wealth of material in Ship Breaker. The kinds of things worth thinking and talking about. The kinds of things that would interest marginalized and non-marginalized readers alike.
Family. It was just a word. Nailer could spell it now. Could see its letters all strung together. But it was a symbol, too. And people thought they knew what it meant. People used it everywhere. Ship breakers. His father, Dauntless’s crew. Tool. It was one of those things everyone had an opinion about—that it was what you had when you didn’t have anything else, that family was always there, that blood was thicker than water, whatever.
But when Nailer thought about it, most of those words and ideas just seemed like good excuses for people to behave badly and think they could get away with it. Family wasn’t any more reliable than marriages or friendships or blood-sworn crew, and maybe less. His own father really would gut him if he ever got hold of him again; it didn’t matter if they shared blood or not. Nita had an uncle hunting for her.
But Nailer was pretty sure that Sadna would fight for him tooth and nail, and maybe even give up her life to save him. Sadna cared. Pima cared.
The blood bond was nothing. It was the people that mattered. If they covered your back, and you covered theirs, then maybe that was worth calling family. Everything else was just so much smoke and lies. (273-4)
(And yet Pima stays with Sadna instead of going with Nailer.) Nailer’s internal landscape is as much a setting of conflict as the external, ravaged by abuse to his own nature, finding similitude with the outside setting where Nature has been ravaged.
The world of Ship Breaker is brutal and unflinching and there is no ignoring the savage potential of the human or nature (which really should not be so separate in our thinking). Ship Breaker will not feel terribly futurist to plenty of readers and in some aspects it will remain foreign but not incomprehensible. I think anyone would find it an exhilarating read; a story they can connect with and be inspired by; a story that feeds the imagination and excites tension.
The writing? The vocab shouldn’t trip many up at all and yet the storytelling does not insult any level of reader. Good metaphors, world building, perfect pacing, the characterizations are brilliant. 323 pages are not in the least daunting, easily consumed, and marvelous considering the amount of content.
Would’ve loved to have this as Required Reading in High School. It is enjoyable and a gold mine for essays.
Powell’s has the age of audience 12-22 and I would second that notion, at least the 12 part (regardless of reading comprehension skills).