Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book review: Chasing the Nightbird, by Krista Russell

Krista Russell's debut novel is a brisk middle-grade adventure that features an appealingly scrappy hero determined to choose his own path in life.

The Nightbird is the whaling ship where Lucky Valera, an orphan of nearly fourteen, grew up and on which he was looking forward to sailing as a full-fledged crew member. Then the half-brother he never knew existed, Fernando Fortuna, kidnaps him from the New Bedford docks. Since Lucky is under age, Fortuna sets himself up as Lucky's guardian and forces him to toil alongside him at the local mill, claiming Lucky's wages as well as his own.

Amid the brutal pace of the factory, with cotton fibers so thick in the air it's hard to breathe, Lucky befriends a fugitive slave, Daniel. (Given his difficult path to safety, Daniel reveals his personal history to Lucky a little too easily.) Lucky's acquaintance with Emmeline, a Quaker ship captain's daughter, leads to a plan: she'll help him escape on her father's ship if he agrees to help her in the abolitionist movement. This is a challenge he feels he's up to, even though he doesn't trust landlubbers.

Russell achieves a difficult balance, preserving the saltiness of the lingo while keeping the story fairly clean for the intended audience. Lucky's used to being around sailors, and readers will snicker when his mouth gets him into trouble.  There is some violence, though it's not out of place for the period or characters.

New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1851 is a racially mixed society, and Lucky's cultural background adds to the story's complexity. A teenager of Cape Verdean heritage, he loves the Island food served by the boardinghouse landlady.  Lucky is a free person of color who doesn't see himself as similar to the former African slaves living in the city, but not everyone views things as he does.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act has just passed, amid controversy, and posters on the streets warn fugitives to watch out for bounty hunters. When Lucky realizes the trauma that Daniel faces if he's returned back South, his work toward abolition becomes more than lip service, and his moral journey is handled without it feeling like a lesson.

This book should be a hit for young people and librarians across southeastern New England. There don't appear to be any other historical novels about Cape Verdean Americans available, for one.  Its appeal is more than regional, though, as it presents an important slice of American history in an exciting and convincing way.

Chasing the Nightbird was published in June by Peachtree in hardcover ($15.95, 200pp).

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