Review: Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer

Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy by L.A. Meyer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. Currently available.

Genre: YA Historical Fiction

Face Value: Here we have a curious tale of two covers for one book. I have seen both in stores and on library shelves, and they are so wildly different that we need to do a compare-and-contrast right here, right now. First, the illustrated cover.

It’s not bad at all. I like the sense of movement – it’s reminds me of a still from an action movie. But Jacky looks so young and androgynous in this picture that I can imagine it was hard to have this on a shelf in the YA section. If I were a young reader perusing through YA and saw this cover, I might think that it was a middle grade novel that had been incorrectly shelved.

Now, the photo cover:

 WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?! Yes, this cover feels distinctly more YA, but they couldn’t have been more off the mark with their portrayal of Jacky.  Her hair is gracefully billowing in the wind, but in the book Jacky took great care to keep her hair either short or concealed and she would never, ever have let it whip in the wind while out on deck. Also, the blue-green tint of this cover makes this book look like a paranormal romance but it’s totally not. Ugh. Looking at this cover for too long raises my blood pressure.

Does it break the slate? Yes yes yes! Jacky is clever in her use of the skills she already has, and whatever she doesn’t know she is willing to learn. She’s assertive and although she might be the smallest “boy” she doesn’t let anyone push her around. What I think is most admirable, however, is how Jacky still owns her femininity, yet won’t let that interfere with her ambition to climb the ranks and someday be the captain of her own ship.

Who would we give it to? This is THE book for readers who loved The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle but need something a little more grown-up. It’s also an excellent gift for any young readers who are obsessed with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, because it offers much stronger female characters than you will find in any of those films. Review: Mary Faber is a tough girl. When the rest of her family succumbed to sickness, she survived and joined a street gang of begging children. When the leader of her gang was murdered, leaving her adrift, she decided to become her own leader. She quickly notices that she can get a lot more out of the world when she “borrows” some boys’ clothes and starts to pass as male. Mary becomes Jacky, and the adventure begins. She says:

“It’s easier bein’ a boy, ‘cause when someone needs somethin’ done like holdin’ a horse, they’ll always pick a boy ‘cause they think the dumbest boy will be better than the brightest girl, which is stupid, but there you are. It’s easier bein’ a boy, ‘cause I don’t have to look for no one but me. I’m feelin’ a great sense of freedom, like a weight’s been lifted from me shoulders, as I’m dartin’ me way down to the docks.”

Jacky cannot resist the allure of a paying job (with meals included!) on a navy ship, so she signs up as soon as she can. Although she’s smaller than the other boys and has to put more effort into the physical tasks, she can read – a skill that few have aboard the ship. Jacky manages to do just fine for herself on board, and she gets in good with the crew of ship’s boys. The other sailors seem to like her just fine, too.

Then things start to get a little weird. Jacky had heard the old superstition that it’s bad luck to have a woman on board a ship, but she never thought that it would be true, and that she would be the target of everyone’s superstition (even though they have no idea she’s a girl.) There’s a disgustingly creepy guy on board seriously, he will make your skin crawl who is a sexual predator that keeps threatening Jacky. This character was so utterly disgusting, so worthy of loathing, that it made my skin crawl just to read about him. And when the crew has some bad luck, fingers point to Jacky, who begins to shoulder a stigma as the cursed member of the crew.

Although tensions are rising on the ship, Jacky’s gender-switch ruse is going well – until that pesky little thing called puberty strikes. While all of the other ship boys’ voices are deepening, Jacky finds her growing breasts to be a major obstacle. Then, when she starts menstruating, she flips out. Of course she has no idea what is happening with her body and she assumes she’s about to die. Given that she’s the only person with lady parts aboard the ship, she doesn’t really have anyone to go to for advice – and a trip to the ship’s doctor is out, because a physical examination would quickly reveal her ruse. Her journal entries about her periods are hilarious, of course, because she is 100% sure that her insides are leaking out – but there’s also real sadness about it, because you just know that there are girls out there right now in 2012 who have a similar experience and are too afraid to ask. Puberty is terrifying, whether you’re sailing the high seas or slumping down a middle school hallway. Through Jacky’s experience, Meyer has captured the fear and wonderment that comes with growing into adulthood.

As soon as the crew has their next shore leave, Jacky goes to the nearest woman she can find – a brothel madam – for advice on how to handle all of the bodily confusion she’s dealing with. She leaves the brothel equipped with a wealth of information about her womanhood, and as an added plus she gets bonus macho points with the fellow ship’s boys when they see her walking out of a house of ill repute. This scene was hilarious, but also kind of touching. The women Jacky met at the brothel were so generous of spirit and they wanted to help her navigate her newfound womanhood. It was great to see Meyer putting a spin on the prostitute stereotype and showing them as smart women who know a thing or to about the world.

Back on the ship and living in close quarters with a bunch of boys her age, Jacky finds her hormones starting to kick in. She develops strong feelings for Jaimy, a fellow ship’s boy and her closest friend. It turns out that he has feelings for her too – except he thinks he’s falling for a boy, and the homophobia on board makes it a very uncomfortable situation. Eventually Jacky decides to reveal her true identity to Jaimy. The two young lovers proceed to sneak hanky-panky sessions whenever they can in the dark recesses of the ship. Although Jaimy is always trying to get handsy below the waist and Jacky very much wants to explore that territory as well, Jacky insists that they refrain from sex – not because she wants to stay pure, but she knows that an unplanned pregnancy would absolutely ruin her disguise and end her chances of moving up in the ranks. This was another fantastically Slatebreaking moment in Jacky’s story. She has no disillusions about the value of her virginity, but her own ambition keeps her reigned in. She’s choosing not to have sex because the potential consequences could interfere with her aspirations. Jacky Faber is definitely a budding career woman.

Eventually Jacky’s secret is discovered. Once the crew knows her true identity she is made to wear a dress and style her hair in a feminine manner. Jacky doesn’t mind dressing like a woman, but she sure doesn’t like being required to do it by a bunch of men. She notes the hypocrisy of women’s clothing styles:

“Why would a country like ours, which so prizes the so-called purity of its women so much, have them wear something like a dress? I mean, trousers and drawers give a certain amount of protection, it’s got to be admitted. Like if someone has evil on his mind and he’s got to work through belts and pant legs and such, it’s going to take him a bit of time and effort, during which such time rescue might be on its way or his ardor might flag because of all the bother. While with a dress, why, you just lift it up and there you are, objective in sight.”

Jacky knows that being discovered means she can no longer stay on the ship, no matter how much of an asset she was to the crew. The captain makes plans to send her to the Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls as soon as they drop anchor in Boston. Jacky is reluctant to leave her beloved Jaimy behind, but she’s also intrigued at the prospect of exploring her femininity – something she has been hiding for a long time. This book is the first in a series and as Jacky Faber disembarks the ship, we cannot help but wonder what she will do next to shake up the status quo.

Jacky Faber is a fireball of a young woman. She will defend herself or her friends when she has to, but she can also be gentle and generous. She defies stereotypes. Let’s give this seafaring lady a spot in the Slatebreakers hall of fame! I am excited to see that she is the subject of many more novels, because the wonder that is Jacky Faber cannot just be contained in just one story. I cannot wait to read more.

Reviewed from a copy I received as a gift from my fabulous sister. Thanks, Alanna, and happy birthday today!

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2 Responses to Review: Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer

  1. granolasusan says:

    And Amazon shows yet a third cover! Thanks so much for your reviews here. I just love this blog.

    • Brianna says:

      I just looked up the third cover – red w/crossed swords and a heart – I think I like it best of all three. Which one is your favorite? Thanks for the info. We’re glad you enjoy our posts!

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