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Description taken from the book:
“Even at night, the wrecks glowed with work. The torch lights flickered, bobbing and, moving. Sledge noise rang across the water. Comforting sounds of work and activity,
the air tanged with the coal reek of smelters and the salt fresh breeze coming off the water. It was beautiful.”
“In America’s gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota – and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck, or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship is beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life …
In this powerful novel, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers a thrilling, fast-paces adventure set in a vivid and raw, uncertain future.”
I’ve been drawn dystopian books lately, therefore, this one should come as no surprise to my fellow BiblioJunkies.
The setting takes place in the New Orleans area, or more accurately what used to be it. What is left in the aftermath of extreme weather, hurricanes and climate change is a flooded area economically and socially depressed. The locals live in “clans” and scavenge ships that have run aground for their endless supplies of copper, cargo and parts. It’s a tough life that everyone is born into and children are not immune to the hard work.
Nailer Lopez is the main protagonist who is about 15 years old, so he thinks. This is the life he’s always known. As a ship breaker he works the light crew meaning that he’s small enough in size to navigate the narrow ducts and pipes to strip copper wiring from the ships. It’s dirty, dangerous work. He has all the bruises, cuts and tattoos to prove it. And he must make quota in order to maintain his status and place on the crew. They live by a very strong code of conduct including taking blood oaths amongst themselves to be loyal to each other. And any break in that code of conduct results in the person being tossed out of the crew and no one willing speak for them. The social structure is slightly reminiscent of the feudal system in Europe during the Middle Ages. You’re born into your line of work and that’s it. If you happen to be lucky enough to run into good fortune, you’ll be made and can call the shots yourself. Nailer always has in the back of his mind that you have to be a combination of lucky and smart in order to survive much less be rich.
When the latest hurricane passes, he and his fellow crewmember Pima, come across a clipper that was caught in the storm. Not believing their good luck, they immediately try to loot it for any valuables when they come across a young girl trapped in the wreckage. This is a pivotal moment when Nailer has to decide if he’s going to strike it rich or listen to his instincts and place his trust in a total stranger and rescue her. Nita couldn’t come from a more different world – privileged, educated and proper. Yet Nailer finds a future of possibilities in allying himself with her especially after he learns that she’s the daughter of a successful and powerful shipping magnate whose position is being usurped by an enemy within the family. Helping her reunite with her family means that he could escape his misfortune and distance himself from his abusive, alcoholic, murderous, drug-addict father. He sounds like a fine catch doesn’t he?
Bacigalupi includes great detail about the ship breaking industry and blends elements of science fiction. In this time and place, there’s a new breed of creature called “half-men” – beings that are genetically engineered from human DNA mixed with those of dogs, hyenas, cats – with the purpose of providing muscle, inspiring awe and fear and most importantly extreme loyalty to their owners. When I first read it, I wasn’t quite sure I understood it correctly. It just seemed so out of place to hear about something so scientifically advanced against the backdrop of poverty that Nailer lives in. But as more was explained, it fell into place.
The description of a ravaged New Orleans sunken below the sea left a deep impression on me. There’s a scene where Nailer and Nita are escaping on a train headed towards Orleans. It’s hard to fathom but at the same time very tangible to see that area as described in the book – abandoned suburbs and roads that have become swamplands due to the climate change. Orleans itself is described as very third-world country. Some examples: people opting to save their money wading through murky water rather than taking a water taxi to get across channels or eating grilled rat on a stick. Sorry, I had to throw that out there.
While some of the descriptions and activities did make my stomach lurch just a little, I still felt compelled to read on because I wanted so badly for Nailer and Nita to survive and find hope, particularly Nailer. You always want to root for the underdog and in his case, I could empathize with his desire to rewrite his own fate. His biggest fear is turning out like his dad, an addict completely lacking in morals. Nailer at one time thought he had no choice in his future but meeting Nita has changed his perspective on loyalty and family. My favorite part in the book is where he comes to the conclusion, “…the blood bond was nothing. It was the people that mattered. If they covered your back, and you covered theirs, then may be that was worth calling family. Everything else was just so much smoke and lies.” When he starts realizing that he can be his own man and create his own destiny, Nailer achieves the confidence he never thought he had.
Ship Breaker is full of rich detail, diverse characters and a gripping storyline. Between all the infighting and power struggles, and the lessons he learns about loyalty and friendship, you’ll find yourself cheering on Nailer as he steps into his own new world.