Book Description (Amazon): Life as a ship’s boy aboard HMS Dolphin is a dream come true for Jacky Faber. Gone are the days of scavenging for food and fighting for survival on the streets of eighteenth-century London. Instead, Jacky is becoming a skilled and respected sailor as the crew pursues pirates on the high seas.
There’s only one problem: Jacky is a girl. And she will have to use every bit of her spirit, wit, and courage to keep the crew from discovering her secret. This could be the adventure of her life–if only she doesn’t get caught…
My Review (Spoilers):
Executive Summary: adventurous
This book was somewhat of a random pick. It was on my “To Read” list, and I found myself at the doctor’s office without a book. So I went through my list and checked to see if anything was available for instant download from the library. This book happened to be. I can’t recall who recommended it to me, but thank you, whoever you were!
The book begins in 1797 in England. Mary “Jacky” Faber’s father has just died of the pestilence. They come back a few days later for Mary’s mother and sister who have also died, and Mary sets out on the streets. She eventually finds herself in with a gang of kids who are led by a kid named Charlie. Charlie takes care of them, making sure they get some food and have a dry place to sleep. All the while they are begging for change and hoping to avoid capture from Muck (a foul individual who sells dead street kids to doctors to perform autopsies). Mary’s special skill is that she is able to read as her dad was a teacher, so every once in a while, she will read the newspaper aloud for groups of people who will give her money in exchange.
Eventually Charlie gets killed on the street. Mary takes his vest and his shiv, but in a twist, she doesn’t go back to lead the gang. She recruits the leader of another street gang to lead in Charlie’s place, and she sets off on her own. She cuts her hair and pretends she is a boy–Jack.
Jack heads down to the docks and finds a navy ship named The Dolphin that is about to deport, and it is looking for ship’s boys. Jacky decides to try her hand at getting a job aboard the ship, and she succeeds by announcing that she can read. Five other (actual) boys are chosen for the ship–Davy, Willy, Tink, Benjy, and Jaimy. Jaimy is different. He’s not a street kid like the others, and Jack seems a bit enthralled with him.
They ship leaves, and Jacky is happy to have regular meals. She gets over her sea sickness relatively quickly, and figures out a way to use the bathroom somewhat inconspicuously. Due to her reading proficiency, Jacky helps out Mr. Tilden, the professor. During the battle drills, Jacky is in charge of the drum as she is the smallest of the ship’s boys. She and the other boys have various watch and cleaning chores as well.
The captain seems to like her as well as Mr. Tilden and a seaman named Liam who teaches her to play the pennywhistle. On the other hand, she has drawn the ire of a midshipman named Bliffil who bullies everyone, and a seaman named Sloat who gives her the creeps. There are lots of ways for her disguise to be found out.
Eventually they see pirates, and despite Jacky’s hesitations about battle, when she sees a pirate going after an unknowing Jaimy, she shoots the pirate getting respect from the others and her nickname Bloody Jack. (Benjy dies during this attack but we didn’t really know him so it’s not really as big of a plot point as maybe it should have been? Although if you’re a street kid, you’re probably fairly used to death.)
The boys become closer getting tattoos at one of the stops. While there, Jacky slips out and goes to a brothel to get some information from one of the ladies about this sudden bleeding that has started happening to her. The lady provides her with all the information about the birds and the bees and Jacky is settled knowing that she is not going to die. (The book is a little vague about everything surrounding this whole puberty transformation, but I’ll allow myself to give it the benefit of the doubt.)
The boys get uniforms courtesy of Jacky’s sewing, and eventually they even get hammocks. But they have to sleep 2 in the same, and Jacky requests to sleep with Jaimy. Davy calls her a little fairy (and with her sewing skills, you’re kind of wondering how 2 and 2 haven’t been put together yet).
Bliffel, the bully midshipman, beats the snot out of Jacky, and when she finally recovers, she convinces one of the meek midshipmen, Jenkins, to finally stand up against Bliffel and also (this was kind of weird) teaches him some fighting moves like a choke hold.
The boys go swimming and since Jacky is an obvious girl now, she declines and stays on deck. This gives Sloat the opportunity to come up to her. Luckily Liam is in the right place at the right time to rescue her, but his rescue raises tension between his crew and Sloat’s. Jacky is put in the middle of it and becomes more and more isolated from the boys who think she is gay and brought it upon herself.
She stops hanging out with them and sleeping in their cabin. Instead she sleeps in the rope locker and makes herself a dress so that she can abandon ship in Kingston.
In the meantime, Jenkins stands up to Bliffil in defense of Davy, and then right in the next couple paragraphs, Sloat attacks Jacky late one night (as he has figured out she is sleeping in the rope locker) and she stabs him with her shiv and he falls overboard. (The drama could have been a little bit more spread out here.) The crew assumes that it was Liam, and Jacky finally confesses when Liam is about to be hanged. They investigate her story and decide that it was self-defense (seems a bit sophisticated for the time?) and she is off the hook. Her friends realize that it wasn’t her fault, and try to make amends.
Eventually Jaimy comes to apologize and Jacky reveals to him that she is indeed a girl. And they kiss because they are in love. They hang out on the boat and they go out in Kingston on a date. A close call happens when the other boys see them but Jacky leaves just in time.
Eventually they see pirates again, specifically the baddest pirate of them all–LeFievre. They get a good attack on LeFievre’s ships, but he sends a fireship their way which cripples The Dolphin and LeFievre gets away. Jacky proves her bravery yet again by climbing to the highest point to look for land, and she finds some. The ship slowly makes its way over to the island which is not inhabited (nor does it have very good resources). Tilly, the professor, dabbles in inventions and has created this kite which he believes he can strap a human into. Of course, Jacky, the smallest, is the obvious bet. In a bizarre fluke, the tree with which the kite was tied to was uprooted and she and the tree are dragged off to another island. (Um, what???)
She stays there making camp until she can eventually set off some smoke signals. She does this and finally sees a rescue ship heading her way. But then, she also sees LeFievre who has also seen her smoke signals. She knows that The Dolphin crew is falling into a trap, so she diverts the pirates, getting captured in the process. Finally her secret is found out and she is sentenced to be hanged. Luckily she is saved just in the nick of time.
But of course she cannot remain a ship’s boy any longer. The captain graciously gives her her cut of LeFievre’s bounty so that she can enroll in a fancy school in Boston. Jaimy agrees to come and find her and take her away.
Verdict: 3 stars.
I liked sections of this book, and I liked the writing, but the action was a little weak for being a book about pirates. Despite knowing the entire book that at some point she was bound to be found out as a girl, when it finally happened, it was sort of a let down. By that point, you knew that nothing bad was going to happen to her. I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequels. Also, as an aside, the author is male. You don’t see a lot of male authors attempting to tackle puberty in a girl, so I will give him some props there.