By Janet Taylor Lisle
Puffin, September 2007
About the Book
It is spring 1929, and Prohibition is in full swing. So when Ruben and Jeddy find a dead body washed up on the shore of their small coastal Rhode Island town, they are sure it has something to do with smuggling liquor. Soon the boys, along with Jeddy’s strong-willed sister, Marina, are drawn in, suspected by rival bootlegging gangs of taking something crucial off the dead man. Then Ruben meets the daring captain of the Black Duck, the most elusive smuggling craft of them all, and it isn’t long before he’s caught in a war between two of the most dangerous prohibition gangs.
Black Duck is a historical novel that I just LOVE!!! It is a novel with a framework structure.
Our young hero, David, wants to be a reporter or journalist. (He definitely does not want to limit himself to working for his father’s landscaping business.) He needs a good story, a BIG story. So he follows a lead and meets Ruben Hart, hoping to find out more about the Black Duck, a ship that was almost legendary—at least locally—during prohibition. It was one of many, many ships that carried bootleg liquor, landing and unloading secretly, of course.
Throughout the novel there are newspapers clippings telling the fate of the Black Duck, of the three crew members who died the night it was apprehended by the Coast Guard. There were so many—especially when it first happened—who thought it was murder, that it was a set-up. That someone informed the Coast Guard telling them exactly where to find the Black Duck. That the Coast Guard shot, without any warning, at a ship with an unarmed crew. David definitely feels there is a story to be uncovered. But will Ruben Hart share it with him?
Most of the novel is set in 1929 in a coastal Rhode Island town. Readers meet Ruben and his best friend, Jeddy McKenzie, on the day they discover a dead man on the beach, a well-dressed man who had been shot in the neck. They also discover a crate, among other things. They report the discovery to the police—Jeddy’s father is the chief—but the police seem hesitant to investigate the crime. The boys aren’t quite sure if this is the deputy’s fault or the chief’s fault. Or perhaps there is someone higher up who doesn’t want this murder, to become publicly known.
The two are told to keep silent about what they saw. But some things can’t be hushed up. The day becomes significant, at least in retrospect, because it was the day Ruben first started doubting Jeddy’s loyalty to him and began to keep secrets from his friend. Ruben starts to believe that Jeddy will report to his father, the police chief. So he chooses to keep what he’s learned and observed to himself.
Ruben also starts questioning what is right and what is wrong. If bootlegging is providing much-needed money to families, is it really that evil? These aren’t criminals. These are hardworking men of all ages who have lived in poverty for so long, who have always struggled just to provide basic necessities for their families, so is it really that wrong for these men to help unload these illegal shipments? Isn’t there a difference between murdering mobsters and the simple people caught up in this mess?
Black Duck is the coming-of-age story of Ruben Hart—and of David Peterson. It is a novel about families, of the struggles a father and son can go through. It is a novel about friendships and how tricky they can be. I loved seeing Ruben and David’s relationship develop through the interview.
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