Due to a most unfortunate accident, which has necessitated my being off the writing scene for several months, I have had to shelve – temporarily – my MG historical faction on the Second World War in Scotland.
When I was able to begin reading once more, my choice was ‘Bloody Jack’, by the American L.A. Meyer. This is one terrific book for young readers; it was sheer chance I happened on it, and after a reading, I’m surprised it isn’t more widely known. It has certainly piqued my interest in perhaps doing a naval historical fiction blog later on. Not only known as the Senior Service, the Royal Navy has a unique, illustrious, and fascinating history. Of course there were the sadists, the opportunists and the rogues as well as the great adventurers and heroes. I’d say the former were eclipsed by the latter! But to return to our novel:
It begins in 1797, in the modest London apartment home of ten year old Mary Faber, with her schoolteacher father dead from the plague of the time, and his body being dragged unceremoniously down the stone steps to be carted off. Mary overhears one man say they’d be back ‘for the rest of them soon enough’, and indeed the very next day her mother and little sister die. As the men take the corpses off, their leader tells Mary not to worry, ‘Old Muck will get you soon enough.’ – remember, this is the era of the body-snatchers – men like Muck made money from turning bodies – the fresher, the better – to the teaching universities.
Poor Mary, with only the clothes she is wearing, runs from her home through the uncaring streets of the great capital. She runs till she can go no longer, and she curls up in a darkened doorway hoping only to die and be relieved from her misery. Instead, come darkness, the street children come to life and a gang finds Mary. The leading girl strips her of her nice clothes, even her knickers, for the gangster girl is bare arsed, and tosses her dirty shift for Mary to wear. The gang leader, however, named Rooster Charlie, takes a liking to Mary and she becomes his protégé. Until poor cocky Charlie falls foul of Muck, who murders him. Mary, out looking for him, strips Charlie, dons his clothes, chops her hair – and Jacky is born.
Jacky tries her luck as a ship’s boy; despite her young age, the recruiting officer signs her on because she can read. Told in the first person, present tense, the book is a rollicking tale of Jacky’s adventures and misadventures, the friends and enemies she makes aboard ship, and the onset of adolescence. Mr. Meyer treats it all with sensitivity and humour. Without unduly dwelling on the cruelty and cynicism of the city, he also shows death as being ever-present, and does not sugar coat either death on the streets, or aboard ship, whether by accident, judgement, or battle. The dialogue throughout is that of the London streets at the time, it should be quite easy for today’s middle-graders to understand. I found just one jarring note – the use of ‘Brits’ to describe Mary’s fellow countrymen. I’m sure this loathsome abbreviation is of recent origin. There again, I’m prejudiced and open to any necessary correction!
This book paints an excellent historical picture of life in the Royal Navy, the perils, the Barbary pirates, life in London and Boston at the end of the eighteenth century. Sure to appeal to the MG.
– Elizabeth McLaughlin
– Elizabeth McLaughlin