L.A. Meyer,
Bloody Jack
(Harcourt, 2002)

I first spied Jacky Faber sitting in the rigging of a tall ship, blithely playing pennywhistle against the wind as the ship danced across the waves.

I liked the painting, by Maine artist Louis Meyer, enough to take it home with me from the small art shop in Bar Harbor where I found it. More intriguing still was the accompanying text, which described Meyer's series of books about Jacky, a young ship's boy. I tracked Meyer down online, dashed off a note to him and his publisher, and soon had the pleasure of receiving the full series for review.

It wasn't long before I was rushing headlong into Jacky's "curious adventures" on land and sea.

Jacky was born Mary Faber, whose life turned upside down in the first book, Bloody Jack, when a pestilence in 1797 left her orphaned and homeless. She turned to the streets, surviving for a few years by begging, brawling and occasionally stealing on the dirty streets of London. But she lost her taste for that life when her best mate was "done for" by a vile city graverobber, and with few options remaining she hacked away her hair, changed her name, lied about her age (a 13-year-old girl passing for a 10-year-old boy, to account for her size) and secured a post as a ship's boy on HMS Dolphin.

Soon she is sailing on a navy warship for the northern coast of Africa and, later, the Caribbean, seeking pirates in a patrol to keep British trade routes safe. She makes friends on the ship, as well as enemies, and her young life develops in ways she'd never imagined -- all as she tries to keep her gender a secret in a closed environment not designed for privacy.

The book is a joy to read, equally delightful to adult and young adult readers alike. The tale is told in Jacky's own words, and Meyer unfailingly presents the story in the colloquial speech of a semi-educated street urchin-cum-seadog.

It's not an adventure-a-minute kind of book, nor will you see Jacky single-handedly besting entire pirate crews with her little knife. The book has a stronger sense of reality to it than that; Jacky has adventures, yes, and the presence of two sequels suggests she comes through them well, but Meyer never makes the mistake of making her superhuman. She makes mistakes, she runs afoul of bad circumstances, she feels fear. The dangers that threaten are very real, and the tone of the book sometimes is very dark. But through it all, she remains a plucky, cheerful girl, bouncing quickly back from misfortune, who loves to eat, dance and feel the wind in her face.

Bloody Jack is a a rollicking good time, a colorful yarn with a lively protagonist and a boatload of action. Once begun, the book is difficult to put down; once completed, it's hard not to leap immediately into the next in the series.

Jacky has already made a successful leap from the printed page to the painted canvas. I can't help but wonder, too, if she could jump to the big screen. I hope a copy of Bloody Jack finds its way into the hands of a good Hollywood director soon!

by Tom Knapp
26 November 2005

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