Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Pirates of Crocodile Swamp

Arnosky, Jim. 2009. The Pirates of Crocodile Swamp. New York: Putnam.

*Spoiler alert*

I don't like spoilers, but I feel like I have to write one for The Pirates of Crocodile Swamp by Jim Arnosky. If you're not familiar with Jim Arnosky, he's a prolific writer of children's nature books, mostly Juvenile non-fiction and Easy fiction. I picked up his latest, thinking that I'd enjoy an adventure book with a nature theme - always looking for that perfect "boy" book. I expected from the cover art that the "pirates" of Crocodile Swamp would be two young boys, but I did not expect that they would be on the run from their father - a drunk, kidnapper, murderer, and abuser.

Unlike Kathy Appelt's, The Underneath, which couches its violence in an opaque mysticism, the violence in The Pirates of Crocodile Swamp (although not a focal point of the book) is real and urgent,
The day Terry died, Dad had come home early from work, drunker than ever. He
staggered in... Jack and I watched the whole thing from the living room. I can
still see Dad standing wobbly at the top of the stairs, cursing and mumbling
that we were bleeding him dry. We were chains around his legs, and he was tired
of working all day to feed our grubby faces.

The story is told from 9-year-old, Jack's point of view. After the boys are kidnapped by Dad, and Mom has likely been murdered too, they steal Dad's money and escape to a swamp in the Florida Keys where they live in a boat abandoned by Cuban refugees. In the book's conclusion, Dad finds the boys in Crocodile Swamp. As they fight against him for their very lives, a large crocodile attracted by the struggle, swims up and deals Dad a fatal bite to the leg. The boys pull him from the crocodile's jaws and place him among the mangroves. Dad makes his peace with them as he lays bleeding to death. Deciding not to report the death, Jack and Sandy set Dad's body adrift in the Gulf Stream.

I don't write this because I didn't enjoy the book; it is certainly an action-packed adventure novel full of admiration for nature and appreciative of nature's quietest moments, such as a moonlight encounter with feeding manatees,
We were about halfway across the bay when something splashed near Jack's oar.
Then a great bulge formed in the water and the back of a huge animal rolled
up to the surface. We pulled in our oars and dove for the floor. I said a quick
prayer, expecting that we were going to be swallowed by a whale. Jack was
hunkered down beside me, but when he heard a watery snort coming from
the animals in the water, he recognized the sound. 'Manatees,' he whispered.
We peeked over the side of the boat. There were three animals in the water,
each one as big as our boat. They looked like enormous gray footballs.
"Manatees," Jack said again. "Real live manatees! Get up, Sandy. They won't
hurt us." We crawled back up on the seat and watched the manatees in the
moonlight. One at a time they lifted their heads, and when they did, we
could hear them breathing.

The quiet splendor of nature creates a stark contrast to the rage of the boys' father.

Arnosky imparts useful and interesting facts about wildlife, nature, boating and survival, but they're integrated so seamlessly into the story, that readers won't even realize that they're learning. A rousing tale of survival and adventure, but not for the squeamish.

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