Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review: Black Duck, by Janet Taylor Lisle

     "I suppose you're here to find out about the old days,  Mr. Hart says. His voice is raspy-sounding, as if he doesn't use it much.
     I am.
     Must be the liquor Prohibition back in the 1920's you're interested in, rumrunners and hijackers, fast boats and dark nights.
     Yes, sir!
     I wasn't in it.
     You weren't? David frowns. I heard you were.
     I wasn't.
     I guess that's that, Mr. Hart says. Sorry to disappoint you.
     Did you know anyone who was? David asks.
     I might've. Mr. Hart's glasses glint again.
     Could you talk about them?
     That was the end of their first meeting."

David Peterson wants to be a reporter, so he contacts his local newspaper about a job. The editor won't hire him. But, if David can bring him a good story, the paper will print it. Which is how soon-to-be-freshman David finds himself sitting in 80-something Ruben Hart's parlor, hoping to learn straight from the source about the infamous goings-on that supposedly flourished for a time in their little Rhode Island town way back when. The rumored former Prohibition-era rumrunner denies being part of it.

Undaunted, David keeps going back to try again. It isn't until their third meeting that Ruben Hart finally relents. He tells David about his boyhood adventures with his best friend, Jeddy McKenzie, starting in the spring of 1929, when they were 14, and found a dead body - wearing an evening suit - washed up on Coulter's Beach. Over several visits that summer, Mr. Hart tells David the rest of the story: about him and Jeddy, and how they find themselves pulled deeper and deeper into the world of Prohibition, and rumrunners, and the legendary rumrunning boat, the Black Duck.

For Teachers and Librarians: 
Your students will find themselves fully immersed in Black Duck before they realize what's happened. And you can find a ton of ways to integrate Black Duck into your curriculum. For starters, you can craft a history unit with this book as its anchor: Prohibition, the rumrunning vessel Black Duck, rumrunners, life in the late 1920's in the United States and the impact Prohibition had upon it, and Rhode Island history. 

The book is interspersed with several news articles about the tragedy that befell the Black Duck, as well as present-day conversations between young David and the elderly Mr. Hart. David's pursuit of a story about the Black Duck, to be able to submit to the newspaper, is a nice springboard into a career unit focusing on journalism: deciding on a topic for an article, gathering facts, research methods, interviews and how to get them, finding sources, breaking into the business, etc.

Or, how about a couple of mini-units? A brief geography mini-unit on Rhode Island's coastal areas such as Narragansett Bay, and their significance in the state's history, would be interesting. Or, a fun side-lesson on the way people spoke in the 1920's, and how those words and phrases are used (or not) and what they mean, then vs now, such as: fellow, folks, hot shot, come along, having a grand time, hoof it, high roller, looking for a fix. Or, have your students research famous mobsters and their mobs mentioned in the book: Lucky Luciano and the New York City mob, Al Capone and the Chicago mob, and the Boston mob. Or, craft a mini-unit on crime and law enforcement as related to Prohibition: racketeering gangs, bootlegging, mobsters, Rum Row, law enforcement and corruption within its ranks, payoffs, bribes, protection money, smugglers... 

Well. Perhaps that last one would be more of a full unit, rather than a mini one. But you get the idea. Black Duck is the total package: a story your students won't want to put down, and a treasure trove of teaching material for you.

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
You know how it seems to go: kids just don't understand their elders, and elders just can't figure out these kids today. But for those who take the time to learn about each other, the perceived great divide between the two isn't quite the chasm it was once believed to be. In Black Duck, teenage David Peterson and octogenarian Ruben Hart don't immediately hit it off. David tells a bit of a white lie to get a conversation started with Mr. Hart. Mr. Hart can tell something isn't quite square, and is wary of opening up. 

But instead of ranting and giving up when he's initially rebuffed, David takes the time to prove he really is interested in Mr. Hart and his part in local history. And instead of blocking out David completely, Mr. Hart leaves the door open a crack, enough to notice the teen's sincerity, even if he took a bit of a slippery beginning to get there. Though the main story is about Prohibition, the infamous rumrunning boat Black Duck, and Mr. Hart's part in each, this is also the story of two people from different generations getting to know each other, and discovering that despite their ages, they have a lot in common. The reader is left with the impression that this is the beginning of an unlikely, yet lasting, friendship.

For the Teens:
Late 1920's. Small town. Prohibition. Rumrunners. Fast boats. A dead body. Secrets. Mystery. The mob. Kidnapping. That's just some of the exciting stuff you'll read about in Black Duck. And in amongst all that excitement, you'll also read about friendship, and family, and how two people of very different ages who grew up in very different times discover that they're not so different as they imagined. It's one of those books that will still be on your mind long after you've finished it. And aren't those the best kind?

For Everyone Else:
Black Duck has a little bit of everything: mystery, history, action, adventure, excitement, and lots and lots of things to make you think, and wonder, and perhaps examine life from different angles than you might be used to.

Wrapping Up:   
Black Duck, by Janet Taylor Lisle. Get it. Read it. You won't be disappointed. 

Title: Black Duck
Author: Janet Taylor Lisle
Cover art and design by: Tony Sahara
Pages: 256
Reading Level: Young Adult
Publisher and Date: Puffin Books, September 6, 2007
Edition: Sleuth Edition (paperback)
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $6.99
ISBN-10: 0142409022
ISBN-13: 978-0142409022

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