I have to confess, Jake Parker's fantastic artwork for the cover of Fish by Gregory Mone caught my eye right away. Also, believe it or not, there are very few works of historical fiction featuring pirates that I have come across in my years as a children's bookseller. On top of that, at 241 pages Fish is perfect for high reading younger readers and reluctant older readers. But, best of all, Fish is fast paced, well written and filled with great (and wicked) characters!
Maurice Reidy begins his life during a raging flood on a not-so-properous farm in Ireland, one of nine children. One day, while bathing at the lake, one of Maurice's older brothers cruelly throws him out in to the depths of the water. Surprisingly, Maurice does not drown but instead experiences a burst of joy as his body finds its home in the water, thus earning Maurice the nickname "Fish." Although competent, Maurice is slow and disinterested in the farm work that he and all his siblings are required to do. That's why, when Shamrock the horse dies, he is sent to town to work for his Uncle Gerry and send money home to his family. Fish works as an errand boy for his uncle, running all over town. A very important task - the delivery of a purse of coins to a man about to board a ship - ends with Fish aboard the Scurvy Mistress. One of the best things about Fish is Fish himself. Although Mone begins his story swiftly, it is clear from the start that, even without his rare gift for swimming, Fish is cut form a different cloth. Knowing that his task is of the utmost importance to his uncle, Fish chases the thief, swims to and boards the ship he ran on to. A few chapters later, after he has been caught and forced to swab the decks for the pirates of the Scurvy Mistress, Fish steals back the purse form the captain's quarters and sneaks onto a ship that the pirates are raiding when he learns that the man he was supposed to deliver the purse to is on board. This kind of determination is admirable and believable, as thoughts of his horseless family back home are never far from Fish's mind. It is this determination, along with some help from his new friends, that makes the rest of the book so believable and enjoyable as well.
The educated, somewhat elegant Captain Cobb who, interestingly enough, has brought his wife Melida (women on any ship were thought to be bad luck) along with him, takes notice of Fish's determination (and swimming skills after Fish rescues a boy who is forced to walk the plank) right away. After convincing him to pledge his loyalty to him, Cobb sets Fish to swabbing the decks and cleaning the easement (a pirate ship's version of an outhouse...) With the help of Daniel, Nate - the thief who stole the purse from Fish and started the whole adventure - and with Nora, the young cook on board the Scurvy Mistress, Fish learns the ropes and then some. The pirate crew of the Scurvy Mistress are a fascinating lot, having divided themselves up based on their passions. There is Thimble, the pirate who loves wine almost as much as he loves sewing himself a wardrobe, Jumping Jack, the exercise leading pirate who just might have invented the calisthenic that bears his name and Sammy the Stomach, a skilled gunner who loves food so much he has named his cannons after his favorites (Mutton, Meat Pie, Sausage One, SausageTwo, and Zuchinni) and Simon, a pirate fond of word mash-ups. There are also pirates who congregate in groups that are fond of tea (the Tea Leaves), the Overs and Unders (ropes) the One Eyed Willies (self-explanatory) and the Scalawags for Sausage, of which Sammy the Stomach is the leader. When Scab, the quarrelsome second mate, takes a dislike to Fish and begins roughing him up at every chance, Daniel teaches Fish "not fighting," which involves learning to out and out maneuver your opponent. This fits well with Fish's character. He knows he can't win a physical battle with a grown pirate and he has no desire to use a cutlass or a pistol on anyone, so his tactical training is both essential and believable. I keep using the word "believable" in this review. Much like the difficulties a writer faces when trying to craft an authentic mystery with a child sleuth at the center, it is a challenge to write an adventure story filled with ruthless thieves and dangerous seas that can be navigated by a young hero. Mone does this swiftly and very well. While there were a few slippery plot spots near the climax of the story, every other step of the way I was right there with Fish, never doubting, never questioning.
The drama of the story comes when Fish learns that the purse he was to deliver is actually part of a chain of clues that might lead to the greatest treasure ever discovered. Captain Cobb, Melinda and their Oxford educated friend Moravius, whom Cobb insists pose as a silent giant in order to intimidate the crew, have spent the last ten years searching for the Chain of Chuacar, an enormous gold necklace that is rumored to be big enough to ring round an entire city. Scab and his men are not so sure this treasure exists and finished following the Captain as he chases after it. Throw a vicious treasure hunter and her timid son into the lot with the near mutinous crew and the real adventure begins. From start to finish, Mone does a superb job of keeping the plot moving, the description of life on board a ship as well as the interesting peccadillos and personalities of the pirates themselves brisk but vivid. Perhaps I have seen one too many a Jerry Bruckheimer pirate movie, but Mone's book was so visual and entertaining that I felt like I could see the fish darting in the clear blue water as I read. If you know someone who would like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island but isn't quite ready for a book that long, Fish is the book to grab! If you know someone who likes pirates and adventure, don't miss Fish! Although this is a story filled with fighting, cannons, pistols, cutlasses and plundering pirates, Mone keeps the violence to a minimum, instead devoting much time to Fish learning, practicing and enacting "not-fighting," which I greatly appreciated. From start to finish, Fish is a great book that I highly recommend. Thank you, Mr Mone, for filling an overlooked space on the shelves!