Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Black Duck

Black Duck. Janet Taylor Lisle. 2006. Penguin. 252 pages.

A rumrunner had lived in town, one of the notorious outlaws who smuggled liquor during the days of Prohibition, that was the rumor. David Peterson heard he might still be around. Where? No one knew exactly. It was all so long ago. Well, who was he? This was equally vague. Someone said to ask at the general store across from the church. It would be a miracle if the man was still alive, David thought. He'd be over eighty. If he were anywhere, he'd probably be in a nursing home by now. But it turned out he wasn't. He still lived in town. Ruben Hart was his name. 

Yesterday, I reviewed Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years by Karen Blumenthal. Reading that fascinating nonfiction book on prohibition led me to indulge in a reread. Black Duck is a historical novel that I just LOVE!!! It is a novel with a framework structure.

Our young hero, David, wants to be a reporter or journalist. (He definitely does not want to limit himself to working for his father's landscaping/yard business.) He needs a good story, a BIG story. So he follows a lead and meets Ruben Hart. He's hoping to find out more about the Black Duck, a ship that was almost legendary--at least locally--during prohibition. It was one of many, many ships that carried bootleg liquor, landing and unloading secretly, of course. Throughout the novel there are newspapers clippings telling the fate of the Black Duck, of the three crew members who died that night it was apprehended by the Coast Guard. There were so many--especially when it first happened--that thought it was murder, that it was a set-up. That someone informed the Coast Guard telling them exactly, exactly where to find the Black Duck. That the Coast Guard shot without any warning, shot at an unarmed ship--or unarmed crew. David definitely feels there is a story to be told, to be uncovered. But will Ruben Hart share it with him?

Most of the novel is set in 1929 in a coastal Rhode Island town. Readers meet Ruben and his best friend Jeddy McKenzie on the day they discover a dead man on the beach. A well-dressed man that had been shot in the neck. They also discover a crate...among other things. They do report the discovery to the police--Jeddy's father is the Chief. But the police seem hesitant to investigate the crime. The boys aren't quite sure if this is the deputy's fault (Charlie Pope) or the Chief's fault. Or perhaps there is someone higher up who doesn't want this death, this murder, to become publicly known. The two are told to be quiet, to keep silent about what they saw. But some things can't be hushed up. The day becomes significant--at least in retrospect--because it was the day that Ruben first started keeping secrets from Jeddy, the day that Ruben first started doubting his friend's loyalty to him--to keeping secrets. Ruben starts to believe that Jeddy will report back to his father, to the police. So he chooses to keep what he's learned, what he's observed, to himself.

This is also a time when Ruben starts questioning everything, starts questioning what is right and what is wrong. If bootlegging is providing much-needed money to families, is it really that evil? These aren't criminals. These are hardworking men, of all ages, who have lived in poverty for so long, who have always struggled just to provide basic necessities for their families, so is it really that wrong for these men to help unload these illegal shipments? Isn't there a difference between murdering mobsters and the simple people caught up in this mess?

So Black Duck is the coming-of-age story of Ruben Hart AND it is the coming-of-age story of David Peterson. It is a novel about families, of the struggles a father and son can go through. It is a novel about friendships and how tricky they can be. I loved seeing Ruben and David's relationship develop through the interview.

Read Black Duck

  • If you like historical fiction
  • If you like historical fiction set during this time period (1920s)
  • If you are interested in a fictional account of prohibition, bootlegging, and gangsters
  • If you like inter-generational stories
  • If you like coming-of-age stories

© 2012 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Kailana 3:10 PM  

I read this randomly a couple years ago and rather liked it. I had almost forgot about it.

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