Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Dystopia in Real Life

Review: Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer

The full title of this book is meatier than its shorthand version: Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy. The title, plus the cover illustration on the HMH trade paperback edition, offers exactly the bait to draw a young boy into a reading adventure.

Alas if our young reader (as this older one did) should miss the clue in that title; Jacky is a girl. A plague orphan masquerading as a boy to be safe on the mean streets of London in the 1790s, Jacky has learned how to cope on her own. Joining a street gang, she has learned to fight to keep herself and her comrades safe and fed.

For youngsters like her, the life of a ship's boy presents a shining promise. Imagine being fed each day, having a place to sleep out of the weather. Imagine not having to fight rival gangs for your right to exist. As for the dangers, well, Jacky is philosophical:
It's just as dead you get from starvation, muggin', or bein' stepped on by a horse, as you get from drownin'. which is, of course, the seagoin' option. And I hears they'll feed us, even. ... [Besides,] a girl what's born for hangin' ain't likely to be drowned.
At first the pleasures of her new position far outweigh the duties. Jacky is astounded to be served meat at her meals, and isn't worried about weevils in the biscuits. She sleeps soundly in unaccustomed peace, and is allowed to replace her brother's cast-off trousers with a hand-made uniform, so long as she makes it herself.

The dangers Jacky finds on board are nothing she can expect from life in London's streets: sadistic sailors and pederasts, strict preachers and officers, and a growing attraction to one of the other ship's boys are the least of her worries. Hot-cannon battles with pirates and the careful choice of where to have a tattoo and how to handle a visit to a brothel loom larger for Jacky and her mates. They take a young boy's perspective on all these perplexities, even religion:
"No, Jesus ain't the King of Heaven," counters Davy. "His dad's the King of Heaven and there'd surely be hell to pay if Jesus come to dinner all covered wi' tattoos, 'specially with 'I loves you, Mary Magdalen' all over His Sainted Belly."

I first read Bloody Jack after reading the trilogy The Hunger Games and the first book of another dystopian trilogy, Divergent. It struck me then that Jacky was just as valorous, struggling every bit as hard against a world that did not welcome her, and as much—or more—challenged by her unorthodox nature as either Katniss Everdeen or Dauntless Tris. Yet the worlds Jacky inhabits are real. Her history is fiction, but only in its details; the broader picture Meyer paints reveals a true image of life in 1790s London, work on board a merchant vessel, and the struggles of those who live in the British Colonies of the time.

At the end, Jacky's sex has little to do with her courage, or her adventures. Young male readers can squint one eye and look past it to see the rollicking adventure it is.