This was the big winner of the Printz award this year and I was quite surprised to discover I had a copy on my shelf. I honestly had no idea what this book was about and the cover and title were not drawing me in. Then I opened the flap and read the blurb and realized this was right up my alley. Set in the undetermined future (where they refer to our current time as the “Accelerated Age”) the polar ice caps have melted, the seas have risen, and there are ancient cities (New Orleans) completely underwater. Nailer lives on the beach and spends his days crawling through the ductwork of old wrecked oil tankers scavenging the copper wire in them. It’s a horrible life and in general life appears to be a horrible post-apocalyptic mess. His father is a murderous evil being, half-men (scientifically created creatures made from man, tiger, and dog) are wild and murderous, too, children are worked to death, and so on. After you read a while you come to realize that the whole world is not like this-it’s just the slummy jungle workers who have such a horrible life. The “Swanks”-rich folk, have fast ships, nice clothes, jewels, and the like. When a swank’s ship wrecks near Nailer he sees the possibility of an escape from his life.
This was a fantastic adventure, and Nailer’s moral dilemmas in a world that doesn’t seem to have morality left in it, pull you in. Yet when I read this here’s what I kept thinking about: one of the things I hated in The Road was the pure evil that seemed to be in the post apocalypic world. Mad Max-y is how I think of it, and I really don’t care for it. And in this book, too, there are characters (Nailer’s father) that just seem to be pure evil-no moral, no ethics, no empathy, and they almost gleefully murder and maim in the most casual way (or take pleasure in it.) I think what I don’t like about that is that I wonder about the author who thinks that up, as well as the widespreadness of it. Do people truly believe that Man’s true self is like that? That if the infrastructure of civilization breaks down that will be the default? I simply don’t. The only thing I can possibly conceive is if someone saw something that drove them mad. Nailer’s father is on some sort of super drugs most of the time, but you still believe that at his core this evil person is who he is, it’s not just the drugs.
I just find it interesting that so many authors have these characters because I don’t believe you would create them without believing in the possibility that they could exist. And tied in to that, curiously, is a conversation I had with my friend about The Forgotten Garden. We were remarking about how awful some of the characters were, just very cruel and cavalierly ruining lives. She said that one of her book group friends thought that because life was so much harder then (Victorian London), that it was such a struggle to have basic necessities of life like food and shelter, that the people were harder. I thought right away of these post apocalypic stories because I feel like that rationale suggests that when life is hard your humanity and ethics fly out the window. Which is, at its core, the struggle faced by Nailer in Ship Breaker, and it’s all wrapped up in a good adventurous package.