In honor of “Talk Like a Pirate” day, I offer a review of Celia Rees’ Pirates?
Nancy Kington is the daughter of a rich merchant, primarily based in Bristol but with plantations and other property on the island of Jamaica, to which location he has removed himself regularly once a year for several months. Her mother died giving birth to Nancy, and Mr. Kington does not marry until Nancy is on the cusp of adolescence. Her stepmother takes her firmly in hand, as Nancy has been allowed to run wild on the Bristol docks; this is shortly after her childhood chum and son of her wet nurse, William, has been indentured on one of her father’s slavers, and Nancy herself is still stunned by the changes this has wrought upon her life. Upon her father’s death, Nancy is packed off to be with her brother, currently serving as caretaker for their father’s estates in Jamaica. While Nancy is aware of slavery, and that her father had slaves in Jamaica, she is horrified by the realities of the situation, as she had not realized the full distinctions between slaves and servants, and how the former were required to behave so very differently from the free white servants. Despite befriending a mother, Phillis, and her daughter, Minerva, all three understand the friendship would not be accepted by the majority of white slaveowners. The matter of the slaves is somewhat complicated by Nancy’s discovery that Minerva is her own half-sister.
Nancy is horrified to discover, shortly after her arrival in Jamaica, that her brother has affianced her to a vaguely piratical trader and ship captain, known only as The Brazilian, in order to bolster the family fortune. She determines to escape her fate, and runs off with Minerva to go on ‘the account’–join a pirate ship and sail under the Jolly Roger. The two prove quite skilled in the buccaneer arts, though they remain “suspiciously curvy” to quote Gideon Defoe’s “Pirates” books.
I’m going to recommend this book heartily, despite its somewhat dubious historical accuracy, as nitpicking here makes about as much sense as complaining that Robert Lawson included a talking mouse serving as adviser to Benjamin Franklin in Ben and Me. That’s not the point of the book. Not to mention that strictest accuracy might not make for a particularly pleasant children’s book about women on the Bounding Main! Pirates weren’t terribly sophisticated people, and naval battles were far nastier than even many adults realize. Not to mention the odds of two women passing as men for a prolonged period of time. The women’s ship mates were in on the gig, so that’s not a problem; the men on board knew quite well those were two transvestites caught up in a melodrama not of their choosing.
No, I don’t want to pick the book apart for the very simple reason that I hope its enjoyability will suck reluctant children of both genders back into reading, as I think that was Rees’ original intent; as I understand it, she was a teacher of middle grades, and asked her students why they didn’t like reading. They told her what they liked–magic, pirates, adventure and horror, among other things. So that’s what she wrote. Overall, I’d call it a good fun read; if Rees lures more kids into reading with rousing good tales involving pirates, sea battles, empowered women making their own fortunes, I’m all for it.