Ship Breaker

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, winner of the 2011 Printz Award, is a dystopian adventure story set in a barely-recognizable America. This version of the future is bleak. New Orleans, which is near where our hero, Nailer, lives, is underwater. The United States appears to have become a third world country, at least where the main characters reside: the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is now unbridgeable. Everyone lives day to day; tomorrow is not a guarantee. To enter the world of Ship Breaker is to surrender to this unforgiving landscape, and to understand what it means to fight to survive, even when there’s not much worth living for.

***

The only life Nailer has ever known is one of extreme poverty and hard work. He is employed as a ship breaker, stripping beached ships of all their valuable materials so that these materials can be sold to corporations. He is small for his age—which, he thinks, is around 15— but he has only a year or so left before he will be too big to fit in the tight spaces within the ship where coveted materials like copper wiring are found. His family is broken—his mother dead, his father a violent drug addict—so he instead pledges allegiance to his crew, a ragtag bunch who are the only people who really care for Nailer.

One day, this trust is breached when Nailer falls into a pool of oil in the bowels of a ship and is abandoned by one of the crew members, Sloth. Sloth, hoping for a lucky strike, tells no one of Nailer’s predicament so that she can return later and claim the valuable oil for herself. With some quick thinking, however, Nailer escapes; everyone learns of Sloth’s betrayal, and she is cast out. Nailer becomes Lucky Boy, but how long will his luck last?

A category six hurricane, a city-killer, ravages Nailer’s beachside community, killing many, but also bringing a wrecked ship full of valuable “scavenge.” No one but he and his friend Pima spot the ship, which means this could be their lucky strike. As they explore the interior, however, the find that there is one lone survivor, a beautiful girl who is barely clinging to life. Nailer finds himself in a predicament similar to Sloth’s: does he save the girl, or let her die so he can claim the riches of her ship?

Nailer’s decision to save the wealthy girl, Nita, ultimately results in the harder path, one full of violence, daring escapes, and unbelievable danger. He is forced to cut ties with his father permanently, and to risk everything for the remote possibility that Nita can save him from poverty. Still, Nailer realizes that he is not a born killer, and cannot kill only for his personal gain. The decisions he makes are not based on what is easy, but what he feels is right.

***

I would be lying if I said I enjoyed every moment of the novel (I’m far too action-averse for that), or if I claimed to understand why it had won the Printz. Still, I did appreciate it for what I think it was trying to accomplish. Ship Breaker is brave and unflinching, allowing the ugliness of its world to really sink in. It addresses issues, like global warming and the power of corporations, that are relevant to us now, and it presents a what-if scenario that is both alarming and conceivable. For some teen readers, I think it could offer a transformative experience. It is eye-opening in a way that few books dare to be.

Yet, the book is not perfect, and does not always do justice to its premise. The characters are somewhat flat, making it difficult to care about them. The issues, likewise, are often muted, hinted at, but never explored in depth. We’re left to wonder: How did things get so bad? What has happened to the rest of the country? Still, the book strikes an impressive balance between being entertaining and being truly thought-provoking. It is stunningly brutal, convincing us readers that if this might be our future, we must do something now to change it.

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2 Comments

  1. The character names don’t seem the greatest. Nailer? Anyway, in light of that fact, I give this book the Prince award: http://cdn.stereogum.com/files/2010/02/prince-causeandeffect.jpg

    Reply
    • Yeah, I kind of knew I wasn’t going to love this book when I found out that the main character’s name was Nailer. There’s no explanation for it either. His dad’s name is Richard, I think. Anyway, I think this book is a worthy recipient of the Prince Award. Especially because I’m pretty sure that in the future, pollution causes purple rain to fall from the sky.

      Reply

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