From the back cover:
In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota—and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or by chance, he discovers an exquisite ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life…
In this powerful novel, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers a thrilling, fast-paced adventure set in a vivid and raw, uncertain future.
Ship Breaker won the Printz Award this year, and I must say I think it deserved it! It took a little while to grow on me, but I liked it a lot by the end.
At some unspecified point in the future, a community of people has sprung up on Bright Sands Beach (on the Gulf Coast) where the best work to be found is on crews breaking down giant, rusting wrecks of oil tankers. Everyone toils away to meet their quota, all the while dreaming of the lucky strike—oil or other scarce commodities—that could make them rich. Nailer Lopez is fifteen years old and works on the light crew, where his job is scuttling through pipes to scavenge copper, aluminum, and nickel.
After a near-death experience during which his wits and luck save him from drowning in a pocket of oil, Nailer is christened Lucky Boy by his friends. This moniker seems apt when he and his friend Pima discover a valuable wreck left behind in the wake of a hurricane. They set to work stripping it but are stunned to discover a survivor—a very wealthy girl named Nita Chaudhury, who promises her father will reward them for saving her life. When Nailer’s drunken and dangerous father Richard discovers the wreck, however, he opts to trade Nita to her father’s enemies, which forces Nailer to make a whole bunch of difficult decisions.
When he and Pima find the wreck, she urges Nailer to be smart about it. In her eyes, “smart” seems to involve profiting enough to obtain a position of power on Bright Sands Beach. Nailer is aiming higher, however, and makes Nita promise to take him and Pima away and into a better life. The choices he makes from that point on are partly in pursuit of this goal, but also out of a growing sense of loyalty towards Nita, who proves herself capable and quickly loses her prejudices towards those less cultured than she. There are many times where he could have walked away and abandoned Nita to her fate but doesn’t, and ultimately, his concern for her works out in his own favor.
The story ranges over a few different settings, from the beach to the drowned docks of “Orleans” to a clipper ship crewed by people loyal to Nita’s father. As a big fan of the Hornblower series, I liked the ship the best. I hadn’t realized how much I missed depictions of naval battles until the awesome sequence wherein Nailer’s familiarity with the coastline results in a surprise advantage over a superior foe. In fact, the whole final sequence of the book was quite exciting, and makes me think this would make a good movie.
I also found it interesting that the main villain of the work is Nailer’s father, Richard, because Nailer harbors such conflicted feelings about him. He remembers the man his father used to be before his mother died, and though Richard’s now more likely to be high and abusive than relaxed and kind, Nailer feels obliged to care about him and give him chances to be a better person. After many disappointments, he finally realizes that Pima and her nurturing mother, Sadna, are his true family and is able to muster the strength to stop believing that his father is capable of turning over a new leaf at this point. Essentially, he’s a victim of domestic abuse who finally achieves the strength to say, “I’m not going to let you hurt me anymore.”
Lastly, Ship Breaker is commendable for its effortless portrayal of characters of many ethnicities. None of the lead characters is Caucasian. Their skin color is mentioned as part of their physical description, but doesn’t factor in to their relationships at all. Characters are judged purely based on their individual actions. If anything, the only real prejudice left in the world seems to be between the rich (or “swanks”) and the poor, but Nailer’s actions convince Nita, at least, of the errors of her ways, especially since he proves fully capable of functioning in her world if given half a chance.
Although initially a little frustrating—despite my love for dystopic YA, I still get a little frustrated with crappy situations that just seem to be getting crappier—Ship Breaker turns out to be a well-crafted and riveting tale.