As a children’s librarian who reviews a book or two on the side, I’ve seen my fair share of new titles. And the one thing I almost instantly try to ascertain about any title that falls into my lap is audience. Who is the author writing for? Do they have a sense of their age group? Will massive amounts of children be interested in the book or will this be considered a "special" title for only a certain kind of child reader? Is it too YA? I consider all these questions, weigh them carefully, then plunk my tuchis down on the couch and proceed to type up a handy dandy little review like the one you see here. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing, that is, until I run across a book like "Nacky Patcher and the Curse of the Dry-Land Boats". Heavens to Betsy, what are we to make of this? Certainly it’s a book that worms its way into the inner recesses of your frontal lobe and then reminds you of little plot details at the most inappropriate of moments. And I can tell you that I finished this book about a month ago, yet when I picked it up to review it bounced back into my brain as if I’d just that INSTANT set it down after the 374th page. The pickle is that I can’t quite figure out who it was written for. It’s almost too specialized for even the "special" child reader I alluded to earlier, and yet it’s not a teen book at all. Almost a book for adults written in a child-friendly format, but with enough significant details that it could also be a tale to read each night before beddy-bye. Quite frankly, I don’t know what to do with it. By all means, if you want a great read, wonderful characters, details that remain with you long after you’ve finished, and a lovely story, "Nacky Patcher" may be right up your alley. But for kids? I tell you truly that I have no idea at all. None.
A man with one leg and a boy with one hand see a vision on the surface of their local inland bound lake that simply cannot be. There, floating on the surface of the water, is a whole host of wood. Enough wood to build a ship. Enough wood that it MUST become a ship. The boy is Teedie Flinn and he’s caused enough trouble in his scant years upon this earth to last a lifetime. The man is Nacky Patcher, a well-known liar and questionable companion for a boy like Teedie. When the two see the wood drifting on the water, however, their course is clear. Gathering their fellow townspeople about them, the two make their case: They must collect, dry, and reassemble this ship that has magically (?) appeared in their midst. If they do this and send it off into the world then Nacky is convinced that the curse that hangs over the town of Yole will lift. Putting a boat together isn’t as easy as it may seem, however, and there are some people for whom this crazy dream spells danger. When the villainous Mally Baloo catches wind of Nacky’s plan, he becomes determined to thwart it by whatever means are at his disposal. It will take the pulling together of a community and the strength of those considered weak to determine whether or not a thief and a juvenile delinquent are capable of ridding a town of evil.
Honestly, there really hasn’t been a negative professional review of this book written. And though Kirkus thought the pace ambled (it did) and that it would have a hard time finding its readership (it has) it still thought the book a "noble effort" in the end. All things being equal, ambling plots and such do not a negative review make. I am not reviewing it professionally here (no duh) but you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t swim against the tide. Kluger has a gentle voice with a lot of narrative pull. You find yourself throwing your lot in with the characters, even if they don’t appeal to you right from the start. I’ll tell you something else; at one point I got so seriously worried for the heroes of this tale that I did the unthinkable. I actually flipped to the back of the book and read the last few pages just so I could reassure myself that everything would turn out okay. Maybe that’s the clearest indication of all that this was a children’s book. Adult books don’t always let you do this. You’re not going to pick up "Ulysses" one day and then suddenly flip to the back because that James Joyce fella has gotten you all hot and bothered. But with a children’s book, if indeed that is what this is, the ending is what reassures the easily upset, like myself.
Kluger also knows how to place one word in front of another in a pleasing manner. Single sentences just suck a reader in. For example, there are phrases like, "Nacky nodded, and Emma then fixed him with a sharp look. Near as he could identify it, it was a look of clean, pure will, one he’d never seen out of her before – and may never have seen from anyone else, either." I love that line, "clean, pure will." Remember that I’m always trying to determine if books like this are going to be interesting to kids. So while the writing is great, there are highly detailed sections, usually pertaining to the boat, that can sometimes be a bit much. "The futtocks and Keelson that helped form the ribs and the spine of the ship weighed several tons each. The keel itself was far larger and far heavier than both. As with all great sailing ships, the keel of a clipper was not a tall and tapered fin that slashed a deep cut in the water. Rather, it was nothing more than a long, wide, slightly bent beam." Is this the "Moby-Dick" of children’s literature? Credit Jeffrey Kluger with this much; he has the courage of his convictions. They say that you can get anyone interested in anything if the writing is good enough. "Nacky Patcher" may then prove to be the ultimate test.
I loved too the gentle power of this alternate world. There are very few differences from our own. Just small, almost delicate details. Fireworks are called "fruit rockets", and just listen to how they are described: "The powders used to make the flames burned hot but dark, producing not bright yellows and greens and golds, but deeper shades that called to mind ripe cherries, dusk apples, and black plums." It can’t be a completely foreign world to our own, of course. Though we never quite learn where Yole is located, we do learn that when Nacky’s boat sinks he floated "away from the forehead of South America back toward the coast from which they’d come – the hard grip of the curse of Yole pulling them sorrowfully home."
Re: the pictures – bravo to illustrator David Elliot. Bravo too to his map of Yole where our story tends to take place. The map is not so complicated that it will confuse the average reader, and yet not so simple that you won’t find yourself turning to it continually as the tale goes on. Bravo too to the spot illustrations that begin many of the chapters. I found the image of Nacky did not line up with my own mental construction, but Elliot keeps his images just fuzzy enough that they do not force their own vision of this world upon your own.
It was Washington Post reviewer Elizabeth Ward who pointed out that child fans of David Macaulay might really be the ideal audience for this title. The kinds of children who relish technical details. The ones who read "Caddie Woodlawn" for the clock repair sections and The Green Glass Sea for the "gadgets". And maybe I’m looking at all of this the wrong way. Maybe the point is not whether or not the book will find its readership, but if we the parents, librarians, teachers, and educators can take it upon ourselves to determine who this book may appeal to, and promote it along those lines. When all is said and done, "Nacky Patcher and the Curse of the Dry-Land Boats" is a book that rewards the reader. Not flashy or pandering or anything but good, it sells us a vision of a world to which I would be happy to belong. A diamond in the rough.
Notes on the Cover: I’ve a feeling that this may not have helped “Nacky Patcher” in the long run. To be blunt, I picked up this book in a bookstore one day half a year ago and thought about reading it in the coffee shop. But the slow opening and (I’m ashamed to admit it) black and white cover (blue words notwithstanding) convinced me that I’d be bored by the story. So I put it down and didn’t think about it again for a while. Black and white pen-and-ink drawings have a place, but it isn’t on the covers of children’s books. Pity the art director, though. A photograph would have been COMPLETELY out of place and, considering the contents of the story and the spot illustrations that crop up from one chapter to the next, it is not unreasonable to assume that David Elliot’s image of the boat with Nacky and Teedie in the foreground wouldn’t suit the jacket to a tea. Coloring it would have been equally disastrous so what is the solution? Heaven above knows. In any case, it isn’t a “bad” cover. Just an ineffective one.
First Lines: “Nothing Nacky Patcher and Teedie Flinn discovered in the Yole lake caused them to suspect they were losing their wits.”
Web Reviews: The Washington Post