This first-person present-tense piece of historical YA fiction begins a bit like a Charles Dicken’s work—eighteenth-century London, poor destitute orphan, cruel world. But from there, things get a lot more interesting…
Mary Faber came from a good family, but that didn’t spare her their loss to rampant illness at the tender age of 8. She’s quickly forced to navigate the unforgiving streets as an urchin—living with a gang of other children, stealing when she must, and sometimes earning spare coin using the rare fact that she happens to be literate. She lives like this for 4-5 years (age becomes a bit nebulous when she has no way of keeping track,) when tragedy strikes again and it becomes clear she must do something drastic or become prey to a ruthless body-hocker.
Her solution? Hack off her hair and pass herself off as a ship’s boy.
And thus, “Jacky” Faber is christened and put out to sea.
All of the difficulties of hiding one’s sex are examined and explanations satisfied right off the bat. And as Jacky hits puberty, her changing body becomes an ongoing challenge—which she works around with ingenuity and a hefty dose of cunning.
The jabs taken at cultural gender assumptions and biases manage to be charming rather than contrived, as they are coming from a young girl who is logically examining her options from a purely pragmatic standpoint. Her belief that she is dying when her menstrual cycle starts is somehow wrenchingly sad and hysterical in the same turn. And her pointed wonderings about why a woman’s virtue would be so prized and protected, and yet they be expected to wear impractical garments with easy bottom-up access may leave many readers wanting to reach across time and give our heroine a high-five.
I’ll admit up front, this book hit on one of my pet tropes: Female posing as a young male in order to escape a bad situation, find work, and protect herself from sexual exploitation. (Part of my fascination may have something to do with having a tenuous grasp on my own gender identity. I’m not certain. >.>) What IS certain is that the construct requires a lot of gall and guile. Two traits I hold in the highest regard.
My only complaints would be in the difficulty of Jacky’s dialect—which does resolve somewhat once she’s on the ship and better linguistics is expected of her. And the conundrum of Jacky’s actual age. When she initially sets her sights on a romantic interest, I was still running with the guess that she was just 14 (which I understand wouldn’t be as inappropriate an age in the time period, but still felt a bit discomfiting.) But at the very end you finally get the estimate of her being at least 15 years old. Which arbitrarily made me feel a tiny bit better about her eagerness to marry. >.>
Content Note: While the subject matter is sometimes suggestive, and there is a tense and somewhat disturbing scene involving a pedophilic crew-member, the handling is consistently thoughtful and laced with a crude tact—which comes off perfectly believable given “Jacky” is so inexperienced. I wouldn’t hesitate to hand this to kids 13 and up. (Overall a mature MG to solid YA feel.)
Final analysis? Snappily paced, skillfully written, and deeply entertaining. Bloody Jack kicks some serious pirate booty.
I’m not even sorry. >.>