Image © Jeffrey Kluger, illustration © David Elliot.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this book when I first picked it up at a used book sale, but despite the unwieldy title I decided to give it a try. Jeffrey Kluger is a writer for Time magazine and best known as the co-author of the book “Apollo 13” from which the film was made. This is his first book for younger readers, and as inspiration he seems to be leaning more toward Charles Dickens and perhaps Herman Melville than the usual suspects like Tolkien and Rowlings. That’s refreshing.
The book didn’t grab me right away, as the opening chapters are full of exposition and character introductions. There’s a lot to establish: an entire village (with map) and many inhabitants, their odd lifestyle of near-slavery to the owner of most of the land in the area, the unusual system of laws and punishments, and so on. The two lead characters are Nacky Patcher, a sometime thief and ne’er-do-well and Teedie Flinn, a dirt-poor child with a disabled hand. There are fantastic elements established right at the start: the complete remains of a large wooden sailing ship that suddenly appear in a lake near town, but that “dry-land boat” of the title remains mysterious for a long time.
The book really comes alive with Chapter 4, where we learn about Nacky Patcher’s time aboard a sailing vessel at sea in a tremendous storm. While still full of details about the ship and sailors, this chapter is also a thrilling account of a disaster at sea that had me glued to the pages.
Once I realized Kluger could write that kind of suspenseful drama, the rest of the book pulled me on through the occasional slow part, and as I got to know all the characters, I liked it better and better. I did find Kluger’s choices for names not particularly well done. They tend toward jokey or silly, undercutting the more serious aspects of the story (which really has very little humor in it). And the climax of the story is kind of disappointing, as the long-promised conclusion of the dry-ship adventure never really arrives. But in all, it’s a fine book and well worth reading.