Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker

Paolo Bacigalupi
For ages 15 and up
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011   ISBN: 978-0316056199

Nailer lives is a world where great cities have been drowned by rising sea levels, and where resources such as metal and oil are incredibly precious. The divide between the haves and have nots is huge, so much so that there is very little contact between the people who are at the top and those who scratch out a living at the bottom. Nailer has always had to fight for survival, and he has no idea what it would be like to live in a safe and comfortable environment where there is enough food to eat every day. Nailer knows that he has to put himself first if he doesn’t want to starve or get killed.

The teenage boy is part of a crew of young people who work on beached oil tankers, stripping them of copper wiring. Nailer is small for his age, so he is given the job of going through the duct work inside the ships to find and detach the wires.

After almost dying when one of his team leaves him to drown in an oil reservoir deep inside one of the old ships, Nailer is feeling incredibly grateful to be alive. It is true that he was injured, but hopefully the wound will not get septic. For now life is looking good.

Then a hurricane blows in and the coastline where Nailer and his crew live and work is hammered. Many people die, shacks are blown away, and the ship breakers working on the tankers cannot go back to work until order is restored. While they wait, Nailer and his crew leader, Pima, go exploring and they find a beautiful clipper ship beached on the shore.

At first the two teenagers are delighted with their find. The kinds of people who have clippers are rich, which means that the pickings are going to be good. Sure enough, Nailer and Pima find money, beautiful works of art, silver, and other treasures on board the clipper. They also find several bodies. They think that everyone on the clipper is dead, but then they discover that a girl, a beautiful creature with long black hair, is actually alive. Pima is all for killing the girl, but Nailer cannot bear to do something so terrible. Perhaps if they save the girl they will get a reward, one that will make it possible for them quit being ship breakers. Perhaps this girl is their ticket to freedom.

Not long after they rescue the “swank,” Nailer and Pima figure out that the saving the girl might not have been such a good idea after all. She is very valuable, and Nailer and Pima are not the only ones who want to use her.

This often very grim and painful story explores the idea that some things are more precious than money or power. Loyalty and friendship have value, and there are times when one has to put the needs of someone else first. The violence and cruelty described in the story can be quite disturbing, but it is in keeping with the world that the author has created. This is a future that none of us would want to experience, but it is fascinating to read about.