This combination YA dystopia and adventure story is a rip-roaring good read, as well as a sober look at a post-apocalyptic world resulting from environmental havoc that doesn’t sound far-fetched.
Nailer, the protagonist, is 15 or so (he isn’t sure) and is a ship breaker on a scavange gang. In brutal and dangerous work conditions, the crews take apart the huge iron vessels washed up near the formerly-inhabited Gulf coast. The materials are then sold to huge international companies, and the crews are granted subsistence (and survival) in return.
Nailer’s mother is dead, and his father, Richard Lopez, is a violent, amphetamine-addicted thug who beats him regularly. But note the beauty of this passage in which Nailer compares his father’s rages with the furious tempests that now regularly blow in from the ocean:
“…Nailer could tell that dangerous gears were turning now, fueled by the rattle of drugs and anger and whatever madness caused his father’s bouts of frenzied work and brutality. Underneath the man’s tattooed features a storm was brewing, full of undertows and crashing surf and water spouts, the deadly weather that buffeted Nailer every day as he tried to navigate the coastline of his father’s moods.”
Nailer’s salvation is another family – Pima, his crewmate, and her mother Sadna, who has healing skills. They provide the acceptance and refuge that Nailer lacks in his own life with his father. As Nailer realized:
“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.”
Nailer and the other “Beach Rats” know they could never hope to bridge the chasm between rich and poor that defines the post-apolcalyptic world. But still, Nailer sees the clipper ships of the “swanks” in the distance and dreams about being on one someday. After a huge storm, one of them actually runs aground and washes up near their beach. Nailer and Pima check it for salvage and find a young girl, Nita, still alive among the wreckage. They call her Lucky Girl, and try to hide her from Nailer’s father and the others who will see her as a body they can sell for parts, but to no avail. Richard, aided by “half-men” – creatures engineered from a genetic mix of humans, tigers, hyenas, and dogs, catch the three and hold them captive.
The book then transitions from a bleak, dark tale into an adrenaline-fueled adventure as efforts to escape turn into a battle of wits and luck and good versus evil.
I loved the descriptive passages of the so-called Accelerated Age, with its rusting monoliths; desperate poor; rich struggling between greed and humanity; and nature still asserting itself in a way that recognized no difference between classes as it reclaimed what was hers:
“The great drowned city of New Orleans didn’t come all at once, it came in portions: the sagging backs of shacks ripped open by banyan trees and cypress. Crumbling edges of concrete and brick undermined by sinkholes. Kudzu-swamped clusters of old abandoned buildings shadowed under the loom of swamp trees.”
I also loved the multiculturalism of this book, in this near-future scenario in which survival skills take precedence over superficial characteristics. And I appreciated the realistic depiction of future political and economic hegemony as belonging to China and India, rather than the West.
And oh, an evil character with subtlety: how rare! How wonderful!
Evaluation: This is a terrific story with realistic world-building and nuanced characters you don’t often find in dystopias. Neither the good nor the evil characters are without shades of gray, and the changes they go through, the resourcefulness, compassion and courage they exhibit, and the lessons they learn make this book a rewarding and thought-provoking book for all ages. The “half-men” which have received canine genes for loyalty are particularly good characters, and I say that as someone who generally does not like deviations from realism. Bacigalupi’s visions stick to the possible, which makes them all the more fearsome and compelling.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010
Michael L. Printz Award (2011)
Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of the Year for Fiction (2010)
Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee (2013)
Andre Norton Award Nominee for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (2010)
National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (2010)
Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book (2011)