CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 5. . . .October 7, 2016
Chasing the Phantom Ship.
Halifax, NS: Nimbus, 2016.
128 pp., trade pbk. & pdf, $12.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-77108-382-9 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-77108-383-6 (pdf).
Grades 3-5 / Ages 8-10.
Review by Susie Wilson.
I pushed my bike into the driveway and jumped on. I pedalled as fast as I could, but that lump in my stomach stayed with me. I knew Emma had a sturdy boat, and Danny and Emma were sailors, and if we could get a picture we would have bragging rights. I also knew we could land in a pile of trouble. It was like standing on the highest diving platform at the wharf: one moment I couldn’t wait, and the next I was terrified. It made me want to vomit. I couldn’t back out. I’d already said I was in. I kept pedalling.
I sailed into Mrs. MacDonald’s yard, the back wheel of my bike kicking up bits of gravel. I dropped the bike to the ground and followed the path around to the back of the house.
The town library was pretty pathetic, just one room. The typewritten note taped to the door gave the hours. Thursdays, closed. I pulled Mom’s hardcover book out of my knapsack, the royal family posed on the cover. I opened the metal slot and peered in. two books lay in the basket under the door. I got down so that my eyes lined up with the slot and my nose was in danger of being snapped off. One book lay upside down, but the other one stared at me.
There was a picture of a three-masted schooner on the front. Ancient, with ratty sails. A detective doesn’t believe in coincidences.
Chasing the Phantom Ship, the debut novel of Deborah Toogood, is an absolutely delightful read. It is fast-paced and engaging, with an excellent combination of adventure and character development. It does have a few stumbles in the plot, but, overall, it is an exciting adventure book many children will enjoy.
The book is set in Nova Scotia during the summer, where the protagonist, Matt, is a sixth-grader dreading spending the last days of his summer with his younger cousin, Adam, who is coming for a visit from Ontario. The first night, Adam, Matt, and Adam’s friend Danny venture out too far at low tide and end up trapped on a sandbar. Danny swims to shore for help, but, by the time he reaches shore and informs the adults, it is too dangerous and stormy to set out. Trapped on the sandbar as the tide rises, Adam and Matt barely manage to hold on until Matt’s boat, which had broken free of its mooring, floats by. The boys make it to the boat, but, without oars, they float aimlessly. While they are riding out in the storm, two mysterious things happen: the boys see a large, ghostly ship, seemingly on fire, out on the water, and then, when their boat is taking on a precarious amount of water, a silent old man in a dory rows them to the safety of the shore and leaves them on the beach without a word. Once Adam and Matt tell Danny and their other friend, Emma, about the fiery ship and the ghostly old man, the kids embark on a journey to find out more about these mysterious apparitions and to get out on the ocean and see the ghost ship once again.
The basic plot of this book, while done before, is done well in this case. Adam has just the right combination of sympathetic traits (his parents are newly separated) and annoying little tag-along qualities. Matt, Danny, and Emma’s bond is quickly and believably fleshed out, even while sitting in their three tropes of the ‘regular kid’ (Matt), the ‘jock’ (Danny), and the ‘brain’ (Emma). Where this book struggles is that it tries to fit too much extra plot in its short 130-page span. Matt becomes upset when he thinks he sees Danny steal fundraising money for the soccer team, when in fact he was just going to get it at his coach’s request. Danny’s grandfather tells the kids vague stories of ghostly apparitions, but ties it to nothing concrete that the kids have experienced. The final quest to find the ship on fire is interrupted by lobster poachers who go out of their way to first attempt to drown, and then successfully kidnap, these four young kids in a dory. If there had been more time to flesh these out, they would have all added to the story. Perhaps Danny and Matt could have had a fall-out and reconciliation over Matt’s assumptions. There could have been a specific local legend the kids discovered that explained why there is a ghost ship on fire out on the water, and who the man in the dory is. The lobster poachers could have even just been mentioned in passing by someone before the final conflict. Unfortunately, in the length of the book, there just isn’t room to develop these side plots, and the book as a whole would have been better served to either leave some of them out or flesh them out more. This also contributes to the difficulty in making a recommendation for the target age of this book. Based on the vocabulary, I, on one hand, would think this book would be excellent for 11 to 13-year-olds, but with the age of the characters (Adam is 8, and the rest are 11-12) and childrens’ general interest in reading about characters older than them, combined with the short length of the book make it seem like it could be more aimed at the 8-10 set. As with the plot issues, I think that a firmer move in writing for one age group or the other in this book would have been helpful. The plot and combination of strong male and female characters would generally make this book an excellent suggestion for reluctant readers of all genders, but the vocabulary level could make it more difficult for someone of the age it’s aimed at to pick up if they aren’t already a strong reader. I would definitely recommend this book for strong readers in the 8-10 age range, as, while it is short, it is well-written, engaging, and has age-appropriate content.
During the final confrontation between the poachers and kids, Matt is thrown overboard and (of course) rescued by the old man in the dory. The fiery ghost ship appears and creates a distraction, allowing Matt to save his friends and, with the help of the one kind-hearted man on the poacher’s boat, return safely to shore. All friendships are mended, Adam is no longer an annoyance, and the town is incredibly happy that the evil poachers have been stopped. The final chapters and epilogue clearly set Chasing the Phantom Ship up as the beginning of a series with Matt and his friends solving mysteries, which is the one place where I feel this book’s plot issues cause the audience to lose engagement. The mysterious ship on fire and old man in the dory were never explained, and the poachers weren’t portrayed as Hardy Boys style bad guys that needed serious investigating to be caught out, but just happened to be stumbled upon due to timing and circumstance. That being said, as a debut novel, this book is a strong effort, and I look forward to reading more Deborah Toogood’s books.
Susie Wilson is a graduate from SLIS at the University in Alberta. She lives and works in Prince George, BC at the College of New Caledonia Library
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