Thursday, March 20, 2008

Old Time California

I was looking for what you might call a traditional pirate book for younger kids when I picked up The Giant Rat of Sumatra or Pirates Galore by Sid Fleischman. It didn't serve my purposes, since the pirates were pretty much landlocked from the get-go. But it was a very decent historical novel that I think would be accessible for kids as young as say, third or fourth grade.

Our twelve-year-old narrator, known as Shipwreck, was saved by Captain Gallows and his pirate crew on the Giant Rat of Sumatra after the ship upon which he and his not very warm and fuzzy stepfather were traveling went down. Captain Gallows only preyed on other pirates and now that he has made his bundle, he's giving up the sea to go back to Spanish California in the 1840s and live as Don Alejandro. My knowledge of this period is pretty much limited to Zorro. But, I have to admit, The Rats of Sumatra has aroused a little curiousity in me for the era.

Gallows/Alejandro only dresses up in the good quality clothes of a Spanish landowner and not a black mask. But he has some of the same heroic attitude of the Z Man. He's seeking a sort of personal revenge--sans blood--against the wealthy landowner who had treated him and others like him badly when he was a child. If he can help a few others while he's at it, so much the better.

Notice I'm talking an awful lot about an adult character. In this book, the interesting, heroic figure is an adult, not the child. As a general rule, I'm opposed to that sort of thing. Kids' books are supposed to be about kids. But I've read a few books where this arrangement works. (The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle, for instance.)

I think when a children's book with a dominant adult character works, it's because that character is an outsider in society. In the case of Gallows/Alejandro, he started out as an outsider child. He became a pirate, certainly living outside society's laws. But as a pirate who stole from other pirates, he was even outside whatever pirate society may have existed.

Gallows/Alejandro isn't assimilated into his society, just as the children who will read this book are not yet assimilated into adult society. Shipwreck, the child character, doesn't have a place anywhere, either. His mother, an actress (she must have been an outsider in 1840's Boston), may have been glad to see him get on the ship that took him away from her. We're not sure. And then he finds himself in a Mexican controlled land that is at war with his own country. Yes, a lovely narrative complication, but one that makes our child character an outsider in that time and place.

So there are logical reasons why this light, engaging historical novel works for younger readers.

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