Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Black Duck

Black Duck

Janet Taylor Lisle
For ages 10 and up
Penguin, 2007   ISBN: 978-0399239632

Ruben and Jeddy are out on the beach one day looking for lobster pots when they come across the body of a man. They never imagine that finding this body is going to change their lives in many ways. Of course, when they find the body all the boys can think about is going to tell someone about what they have found. They decide that the police are the best bet and since Jeddy’s father is the police chief, they try to get hold of him. Unfortunately, by the time someone gets down to the beach to check things out, the body is gone.

Not satisfied by what the police have done, Ruben and Jeddy decide to go and ask an old man who lives on the beach if he saw anything. It turns out that old Tom did indeed see some men arrive in a seaplane. They took the body of the dead man away soon after Ruben and Jeddy left the beach. Tom is convinced that the dead man was somehow involved with the run runners and bootleggers, who are active all along the coast.

Not long after finding out about this event, things in Ruben’s little coastal town get a lot more complicated. It would appear that the dead man was carrying what is called a “ticket,” a piece of paper which rum runners highly value and which they will do almost anything to get their hands on. A number of people are sure that the ticket is somewhere in town and they begin questioning old Tom, Ruben, and Jeddy. That little piece of paper is worth a great deal of money to a bootlegger and several groups of people who are in the business come sniffing around looking for it. There are the local rum runners of course, but they are very minor players in the big scheme of things. Then there are the “big boys” from New York and Boston. These men are in a different class altogether and they are very dangerous indeed. It is likely that members of the Boston group were the ones who killed the man on the beach in the first place.

As if this isn't complicated enough, the rum running activity in town starts to build up steam. Ruben begins to realize that all kinds of people are involved, including the coast guard and the local police. It would appear that the boundaries between what it right and what is wrong are not very clear any more. Even Ruben’s own father is being forced to cross into a very grey area, albeit reluctantly.

Then Reuben realizes that he is the one who has had the ticket all the time. It was in the tobacco pouch that he took from the dead man’s pocket that day on the beach. What should he do with the ticket and how can he ensure that he and his family stay safe?

Readers will find themselves getting completely caught up in this fascinating and gripping story, which is set in a New England coastal town in 1929. With Prohibition in full force, run runners were willing to risk a great deal to bring illegal alcohol into the United States, and it was a highly profitable businesses. Indeed, it was so profitable that powerful crime families and gangs were soon involved. Turf wars were common, just like the one described in this story, where the local runners were firmly edged out by the “big boys” from the city. And of course the “big boys” often had to battle it out among themselves as well.

What makes this story especially engaging is the way in which the relationships between the characters change and evolve, and the way in which the author feeds us little bits of information a piece at a time, drawing the tale out and keeping the suspense going throughout the story.