The Reluctant Deckhand.
Written by Jan Padgett. Illustrated by Amanda Forbis.
Grades 5 - 6 / Ages 10 -11.
As one whale sank below the surface of the water, another whale would rise up, the sun glistening off its white and black body. A puff of vapour rose in the still air. Then two whales surfaced together, a mother with her baby close at her side. As they sank below the surface, yet another huge body exploded out of the water, flinging spray high into the air.
Tess had seen orcas before. They passed by Lund, always far out in the strait. But now she was in the water with them, in their own element. And she was in a tiny kayak. The whales were bigger than the kayak, and the were moving quickly, much faster than the kayak could.
JAN PADGETT IS A WRITER and film-maker who lives in Powell River, B.C. She wrote and directed the animated film The Reluctant Deckhand, and wrote this companion novel as well (both the film and the accompanying teacher's guide are also reviewed in this issue). Although she has written several short stories, The Reluctant Deckhand is her first novel.
The Reluctant Deckhand is the account of a ten-year-old girl's summer on a her mother's fishing boat, working the waters between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. At first, Tess is resentful and reluctant to spend her summer on the Henry Bay, away from her best friend Candice, from the beach, and from the Sea Fair, where the basket she had made over the winter was going to be entered in a contest. But Tess's mother, Sue, doesn't want to spend the summer away from her daughter, and figures Tess is old enough to help out with the fishing. Candice gives Tess a parting gift -- a kitten who becomes a comforting companion.
At first, Tess is afraid of storms, rough waters, and sinking, and afraid of something happening to her mother. While on the boat, Tess experiences a great variety in weather, beautiful geography, and close encounters with dolphins and orca whales. But by the end of summer, Tess's skills have grown -- she learns to fish and navigate, and her confidence in the water has grown too.
Her new skills are tested when she helps rescue a boat in distress. After this climactic experience, it seems the "bug" has caught hold of Tess. She is reluctant to see the summer end, and is already looking forward to next summer on the boat.
Padgett's prose style is articulate and unsentimental. She describes the fishing and the land and sea thoroughly. The language and metaphors used make this novel suitable for grades five and six. The map of the route taken at the beginning of books, and the glossary of nautical and fishing terms at the end will be appreciated by teachers and students alike. The scattered black-and-white illustrations by Amanda Forbis (who did the animation for the film) are charming and expressive. Little filmstrip-like images beneath the main pictures add extra detail.
Tess is a likeable and intelligent ten-year-old. She and her mother make strong female role models. And there are brief encounters with other women who could be seen as role models: Anne the lighthouse keeper; Christine the wildlife photographer; and Auntie Betty, a native elder.
The Reluctant Deckhand is likely to be of interest to boating people, or to those who have an interest in boating or live near the water. At times the inspiration seems to flag, and drama is lacking -- either between the characters and nature, or among the characters themselves. Tess is so reasonable and mature, and the conflicts with her mother are handled in such a civilized manner, that it's almost worth dissecting their conflict resolution techniques to make a sort of "how-to" guide.
Still, this well-told tale has a kind of shimmering beauty. As Tess leaves her carefree summers of berry-picking and playing on the behind, she enters another, more mature stage of childhood. It is more self-aware stage, and entails more self-reliance, responsibility, and work, but still is fraught with possibilities for joy and beauty.
Leslie Millar is a substitute teacher and volunteer in Winnipeg schools.
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