Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

I just finished Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi--I'd read good things about it so put it on hold at the library, and it was high on my to-read list, but when it won the Printz award for 2011, I knew I wouldn't be able to renew it, so I read it next.

Okay, I might've anyway. It looked really good. Set in the future, taking place in what used to be the Gulf Coast of the U.S. but is now just the Gulf Coast, the main character is Nailer, a boy maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. When asked how old he is, he says, "I don't know how old I am. But I made it onto light crew, and I made quota every day. That's what matters where I come from. Not your stupid age." Nailer works as a "ship breaker," stripping wire and other salvageable material from the oil tankers that are washed up on shore where he lives. He is surviving, barely, but he is surviving.

He has adventures. Stuff happens. It's a page turner and one of those books you want to read in every spare moment to find out how it will end.

One of the things I love most about it, though, one of the things that makes it more than a good story, is what Nailer learns (the conclusions he comes to?) about family over the course of the story. His father is a drug addict and a murderous asshole, but a wise half-man (part of a strong and quick race of slaves created by scientists from the genes of dogs, tigers, hyenas, and humans) tells him, "You are no more Richard Lopez [his father] than I am an obedient hound. Blood is not destiny, no matter what others may believe."

Nailer thinks later about family:
Family. It was just a word. ... But it was a symbol, too. And people thought they knew what it meant. People used it everywhere. ... 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. ...
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.
Also, over the course of the novel, Nailer learns to read--this is important when he goes off into the world and finds another job, though at first it seems like a waste of time. Also, he is offended when others view his illiteracy as a weakness on his part. Then reading becomes something he just does without thinking about it, and at the moment when he realizes that: "Nailer was amused that he could actually make out the meanings now. He was going to drown, but hey, he could read." It's handled in such a delicate way--not preachy, just matter-of-fact. I feel like I should have more to say about that but I don't, right now.

This is a great book. Highly recommended.

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