by Natalie Babbitt
Set on the island of Jamaica in the 1720's, Natalie Babbitt's first new book in a quarter century is the story of a former pirate looking for a new vocation after getting kicked off his ship for not being pirate enough. Jack doesn't have the stomach to plunder or rattle swords and would rather cook soup and keeps his fellows company, and for a while the crew of the Avarice were fine with the arrangement. But times for pirating were lean and Jack was set ashore with his belongings and enough florins to get him set up on land.
Checking into a local boarding house his charm wins him an audience among the borders who are slightly excited to have a reformed pirate in their midst. Daily Jack sets about with the landlord's daughter to find suitable work but each day encounters a problem that prevents him from taking on the enterprise. At the end of each day when the members of the boarding house sit down to sup Jack recounts a story relevant to why this job or that isn't suited to him, thus justifying his inability to find employment.
These tales all center around the things he's seen during his days as a pirate, tall tales for the most part of the kind that make for good nautical folklore: The sailor that takes the shape of an octopus during the full moon; The man who bakes a cake to successfully woo a mermaid; The sailor whose prize possession of a mummified hand of king lures a ghost to the ship. There are also the less supernatural yarns, of alligator charmers and gold-fever, and a sailor so enamored of his beard he refuses to cut it off despite having a dead crab lodged within it. Each of the stories ends with a short discussion by the boarding house audience and an agreement that after hearing such a tale Jack's aversion to a particular vocation is justified.
(Non-spoiler alert: I'm not giving away the ending, though I think it can be easily guessed.)
In the end Jack realizes he can no longer afford to stay at the boarding house, but the answer has been staring them in the face the entire time. Arrangements are made and Jack manages to stay, utilizing his skills to the fullest.
In the same vain as a shaggy dog or campfire story, Babbitt's stories don't really justify Jack's inability to find work so much as link a fanciful hornpipe of nautical tales. It's clear from the start that Jack is a master of avoiding work and his amiable ways are what keeps him in good company, if not fed, housed and clothed. When the landlord suggests "Stories aren't much, of course, but on the other hand, they're not so little, either" it echoes an old expression I've often seen credited to Barry Lopez but heard comes from the old Yiddish saying that "people need stories as much as food." It's that hunger for the spirit that comes alive in the telling, the ability to be transported to another place, see through another's eyes, experience adventure.
There's the odd sense I had while reading these tales, a feeling of displacement. Not quite ghost stories, they have that feel of a collection of supernatural tales that would be better suited for Halloween. Not quite campfire stories, because of their nautical settings, they beg to be told by an old salt on the docks of a fishing village to the kids who congregate there, not the parlor setting of Jamaica in the 1720s. To be as genteel about this as possible: the pirate setting almost feels calculated to ride the recent wave of popularity in all things pirate.
As a collection, the stories vary only slightly in quality from one another, and the exercise as a whole feels about three stories too long (there are eight stories total) and we could argue which three could go. (If anyone who has read the book feels so inclined to list their three least favorites in the comments I'll check in with mine). Overall, a not unpleasant option for teachers and the lovers of tall tales, or as an alternative to usual tales told in October. Just not stellar.