British author Carol Birch’s extraordinary coming-of-age historical is among Christian Science Monitor‘s 11 Excellent Novels for Summer Reading, which includes a few others you will be seeing here over the next couple months – Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson and The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka.
The writing, story, setting and characters make this exceptional. But I also love that Birch appropriates historical figure Charles Jamrach, who supplied exotic animals to P.T. Barnum among others, and takes inspiration from an historical incident, the voyage of the whaleship Essex (an inspiration shared by Herman Melville).
Why haven’t we heard of Carol Birch until now? This is the first of her ten books to be published in the United States. After reading the descriptions, I bet a few others would also appeal to teen historical fiction readers. Maybe Doubleday will take them on?
Adult/High School–Jaffy Brown is poor and uneducated, and he has little chance for a life beyond the dirty squalor of the streets of 19th-century London until he survives a bite from the tiger in Jamrach’s menagerie. Impressed, Jamrach hires him to take care of the animals. It’s there that Jaffy meets Tim and his sister Ishbel, beginning a lifelong friendship that takes Jaffy and Tim to the wilds of Pacific Islands aboard a whaling ship in search of a mythical–yet far too real–dragon. In spite of the brutal life of a sailor, Jaffy and Tim thrive on the adventure and camaraderie. But all this takes a hard turn after they bring the dragon on board and must fight for their lives against the relentlessness of the sea. Vivid descriptions put readers in the loud streets of London with the mad scrabble of hungry kids and the tired anger of lovers and whores. Later, they will roll with the swell and puke over the edge of the ship alongside Jaffy and his shipmates, or climb aloft to search for the land where the dragon is sure to be. Later still, readers are with the survivors as they cling to life and humanity against all odds. Birch writes from Jaffy’s point of view so the language is the rough accent of the London poor. Teens may find themselves re-reading some details to get the picture at first, but once in the words flow and the images make themselves. Jaffy’s voice is true to his spirit and rich in detail and thought. Recommend this enormously satisfying novel of friendship, survival, and redemption to adept readers who enjoy being involved with their characters.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA