Bloody Jack: Being the Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy by L A Meyer has to be some to the best historical fiction I have read in a long time. Admittedly, historical fiction set in England from the Victorian Era on back a couple of centuries happens to be a favorite of mine. Bloody Jack: Being the Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy was published in 2002, and book eleven in the series, Boston Jacky, is due out in September of this year. Although Jacky is thirteen when the series begins, as with most historical fiction, there are some brutal and unpleasant aspects to humanity that make these books young adult (teen) rather than middle grade. I decided to classify these as MIDDLE GRADE, rather than YA on my blog because I think that interest in historical fiction tends to wane for teens and, seeing as how this is an ongoing series, it would be great to hook readers when they are eleven, twelve and thirteen so that they have a series of books to carry them through the next couple of years, depending on how fast they read. With that in mind, I will lay out the one aspect of Bloody Jack: Being the Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy that parents should be forewarned of. The ship's boys are the youngest and lowest members of the crew and are not much better thought of than animals or slaves in some cases. But, they are also given lessons each day by Mr Tilden, a puritanical American who assigns the boys three new vocabulary words a day. At the end of one lesson, he gives them the words pederasty, sodomy and buggery, to "protect them from the sin. The sin that dare not speak its name," and warns the mystified boys to keep themselves to themselves and stay away from dark places as it is a hanging offense. The very creepy, lurker Bill Sloat takes an interest in Jacky, believing her to be the boy she is pretending to be, telling him/her they will have to have a nice, long talk sometime, resulting in an especially cringe-worthy scene in which he tries to rape him/her and discovers she is a girl. Aside from the words that Tilden gives in the lesson and the incident described here, there is nothing more descriptive regarding this subject, although before the boys learn that Jacky is a girl, they all think he is queer and call her/him a sodomite. But, this is a small part of Jacky's story.
Mary "Jacky" Faber finds herself orphaned in 1797 at the age of seven. Her father had been a teacher and had begun to teach her to read, which changes the course of her life more than once. Mary is taken up by a gang or urchins and is desperately loyal to them. But, at the age of twelve, she finds the beloved leader of her gang, Charlie Rooster, bleeding to death in an alley. She takes his clothes and his shiv, crying the whole time, and heads off to become a ship's boy on the HMS Dolphin, headed by Captain Locke. Since England and France are no longer at war, the mission of the Dolphin is to hunt down pirates, specifically La Fievre, the French rogue.
What makes Bloody Jack: Being the Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy so completely entertaining and compelling is the narrative voice and character of Jacky herself. She is observant, smart and thoughtful and often reflects on the nature of things. She is sentimental, and loving and fiercely loyal but also pragmatic. She wonders how it is that she can fool four hundred men into thinking she is a boy and realizes that people see what they expect to see and don't bother to look much farther. Yet, she also worries, wondering if she is pretty and will ever be fancied by a boy, specifically Jaimy Emerson Fletcher, her fellow ship's boy who is a knob, coming from a family with a bit of money, and not an urchin like the other ship's boys. Jacky is a master at bringing the ship's boys together and bonding them, just as she and her street gang bonded. Soon, the ship's boys have a brotherhood, a hideout in the rigging, an oath and plans for a tattoo the next time they are in port. Jacky also finds herself a "ship's dad" in Liam, an Irish father of six who takes her under his wing and teaches her to play the penny whistle and the concertina and how to do the dances and sing the shanties, of which a few are included in the book and can be heard sung in an especially lovely voice if you have the pleasure of listening to the supremely gifted Katherine Kellgren narrate this series. Kellgren also narrates the Enola Holmes series. Another brilliant work of historical fiction with a fantastic girl protagonist, Nancy Springer's series features the much younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft who, when her mother disappears, secretly takes her fourteen-year-old self to London and sets herself up as a Scientific Perditorian and competes with her brother, unbeknownst to him. Jacky also learns that she enjoys and is a capable seamstress and uses some of her pay to sew herself a smart shirt and pants and later a cap. The captain takes notice of her and commissions a set of uniforms for all of the ship's boys, although they are none too happy about it, especially the caps. Jacky seems to have a way of unintentionally calling attention to herself and the boy's start to think she's queer, they even tell her she shakes her bum as she walks across the ship. She uses Charlie's vest, now small and tight, to bind herself in as she begins to mature, and, in an especially funny scene to those in the know, unaware of what is really happening, she is convinced she is dying when she begins to menstruate. And, in an especially dangerous development, Jacky falls in love with Jaimy and has to force herself to keep away from him, especially once the boys think she is queer and start shunning her, despite the brotherhood.
That has to be one of the best, most entertaining and interesting parts of Bloody Jack: Being the Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy: the character of Jacky herself and the ways in which she gets herself into and out of trouble with her irrepressible personality. She has a true joie de vivre and that is probably what keeps her alive, ultimately. After Jacky begins menstruating, convinced she is dying, she decides to desert at the next port. When it stops, then returns again a month later, she tries to consult the anatomy books on board but to no end. Suspecting something other than a terminal illness, she resolves to visit a brothel when they are in port and pays a prostitute to explain the birds and the bees to her, much to her relief and satisfaction. At night, in their hammocks, when the other boys are talking about becoming midshipmen and fighting pirates, Jacky talks of getting her own ship and becoming a trader one day because who would want to have to keep swinging a sword and fighting for his life? Even so, she does plenty of this over the course of the novel. Jacky and all the ship's boys are the constant target of Blithil, the son of a rich man who has bought his place on board and is a midshipmen a few years older than they are. Blithil is a bully who beats them and anyone weaker than himself whenever he can. Jacky takes Jenkins, Blithil's senior midshipman, aside and tries to convince him that he needs to fight Blitihil, even if he will lose, since bullies don't like to get hurt. This kind of talk is very close to mutiny and Jacky almost pays for it, but Jenkins comes through and Blithil gets his in the end. The boys also find themselves fighting pirates with swords and guns. Jacky earns the name Bloody Jack after she boards the pirate ship behind Jaimy, wanting to protect him, and slips in the blood that covers the decks, killing a pirate about to escape with a horde of gold and stab Jaimy in the process. She also earns the name with negative connotations because she is always stirring up trouble. Because of her nature, I expected Jacky to be in trouble at ever turn and found this book very suspenseful - so much so that three-quarters of the way through the book I had to read a synopsis of the plot so that I could breathe again as the tale unfolded. Jacky does get into quite a lot of scrapes. I haven't even told you the half.
Meyer's writing is fantastic and, having read through the plots of the rest of the books in this series, I think readers will definitely want to know more about Jacky and her exploits. Meyer also does a fine job of writing the romance between Jacky and Jaimy, conveying the danger of their romance while every sailor on board thinks Jacky a boy.
Bloody Jack: Being the Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy reminds me of a blend of two other books I have read and loved: A Soldier's Secret by Marissa Moss, based on the true story of a woman who passes as a man so she can fight for the North in the Civil War and Stowaway by Karen Hesse, the based on the true story of Nick Young who stowed away on the Endeavor for Captain Cook's historical voyage.
And, of course, for anyone wanting a good adventure at sea, don't miss Treasure Island and the recent sequel, Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and Andrew Morton, respectively.
The BLOODY JACK series, in order: Original Covers
The BLOODY JACK series, in order, new covers:
Source: Purchased Audio Book