CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 25. . . .March 2, 2012
Ship of Souls.
Los Vegas, NV: Amazon Publishing, 2012.
124 pp., pbk., $9.95.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Joan Marshall.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
"Where is he?"
"Drag him in here! Who's he to keep us waiting like this?"
"Patience, men, patience! He hasn't the heart of a soldier."
The men laugh at the suggestion that I'm a coward. They quiet down after a while and I realize the last speaker must be their leader.
"Come in, boy, come in!'
I move toward his booming voice even though I know his welcome is insincere. When I reach the bottom of the stairs, I suddenly find myself in a large cavern. A gust of air blows past me and suddenly three torches ignite and fill the space with orange light and wavering black shadows. The cavern is actually a junction, an open space circled by gaping black holes that must lead to other tunnels or stairways. Tangled roots hang from the ceiling and wriggling worms burrow in and out of the damp earthen walls. Then I look closer and realize the worms aren't moving through soil – they're moving through the decomposing flesh of the dead!
In this modern day urban New York fantasy, 11-year-old Dmitri, known as D, struggles for acceptance at school and with his foster parent, Mrs. Martin. As his brilliance at math becomes apparent, he is tapped to tutor grade eight basketball star Hakeem, and D becomes friends with the clever, beautiful Nyla and her gang of outcasts. When D rescues a magical talking bird named Nuru, who can change her shape at will, he and Hakeem and Nyla take on Nuru's mission to save the restless souls of the dead slaves from America's shame-filled past. Chased by the ghosts of American Revolutionary soldiers who want Nuru's life-giving properties, the trio escape through the tunnels and sewers of Prospect Park, NY, to the underground train system. With Nuru's guidance, they find the Chamber of Souls where D completes his destined task of helping the long-suffering slave ghosts onto a ship setting sail for the Africa of another realm.
D is a grieving child, desperate for a decent home and acceptance. He toes the line, behaving as well as he can so nothing jeopardizes his safe foster home, but he is definitely a loner, an awkward math geek who loves to watch birds. It is odd that, as a grade six boy, he is attracted to 13-year-old Nyla and sees her as a possible girlfriend. However, as he makes friends with Hakeem and Nyla, D gathers the strength and courage to complete his heroic task.
Hakeem is the stereotypical black jock. However, his Muslim faith sets him apart, and he protects D when he could easily have brushed him off. Although he uses D to come closer to the beautiful Nyla, Hakeem commits to D's safety and to his mission.
Nyla, the world travelling army brat, is a powerful girl who cheerfully attracts the unpopular geeks. Initially helping D so she can get to know Hakeem better, Nyla's compassion and intelligence keep her involved in D's life.
Nuru, the Christ-like symbol of powerful energy, heals physical ailments and inspires and influences life in the nether world and on earth. She returns to the alternate reality of her own realm once her task is complete, staying close to D in his heart.
The Revolutionary soldier ghosts are true to their roots, racist and brave, loyal and determined.
The earthy environment of the underground of Prospect Park, NY, and the slimy sewer tunnels add to the ghostly creepiness of the story.
The pervasive, well-done dialogue and the action chasing scenes will hold readers' attention. Less believable is the role of Nuru and D's role as her host. Even the intended middle grade reader will find Nuru oddly pretentious in her sublime holiness, and her over-the-top spiritual message may provoke eye-rolling.
The strong theme of sticking close to your friends despite all odds rings loud and clear. However, Canadian children will have to do some quick double think to incorporate the views of the American Revolution presented here in which their ancestors are clearly portrayed as the enemy of the brave Americans.
Although the age and character of the protagonists call for younger readers, there is some crude language (crap, pissed), Nyla does swear, and there is an odd reference to lesbianism, all of which are unnecessary to the story.
More mature middle school readers who are interested in history may enjoy this novel.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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