Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. New York: Little, Brown, 2010. Recommended grades 9-12.
You’ve got to be both smart and lucky to survive as a ship breaker on Bright Sands Beach. Life is bleak eking a living by scavenging parts from beached tankers in a world where sea levels have risen dramatically due to climate change and huge hurricanes called City Killers regularly devastate the Gulf Coast.
Nailer is a teenager who earns the nickname Lucky Boy after narrowly escaping death when a ship’s duct collapsed, dropping him into a tank of crude oil. But after the lucky windfall of finding a wrecked clipper ship, why can he not bring himself to make the smart decision and choose riches from scavenging it over rescuing the half dead girl he finds on board? All of his upbringing and family experience say that life is cheap and a Lucky Strike like this is to grabbed with both hands. Perhaps it is his own near-death experience that makes him choose to do the right thing instead of the smart thing.
What follows is an action-packed adventure as Nailer and his crew-mate Pima try to protect Nita from Nailer’s own father and the violence of Bright Sands Beach while seeking to reunite her with her own “swank”, shipping magnate family. Along the way, Nailer must come to grips with his own identity. Is he really a younger version of his father and, if so, is he destined to act as evilly as his father? What role does his environment play in who he is? He struggles as his personal sense of right is at odds with everything his experience on the light crew has taught him to date. Supported by his crew-mate Pima and her mother, he finds himself at odds with his own father and wonders what makes someone family. Is it blood? Or is it ties of love and loyalty?
The character Tool provides a counterpoint to Nailer’s questions of what determines identity. Tool is a half-man, part human mixed with the genes of animals including dogs and tigers. Half-men are bred to be loyal to the death, supposedly incapable of living independently of their patron. Yet Tool has no patron and chooses for himself how to live his life, in conflict with the genetic engineering that created him. Can Nailer learn to apply such independence to his own life choices?
While Bacigalupi explores deeper themes of identity and family relationships, the action and plot never suffer. Nailer is swept along to Orleans, the successor city to flooded New Orleans, and even out to sea. Can he survive as fate drops him into situations for which he has no skills? Is it worth the struggle to try to reunite Nita with her family? And is it possible to escape the life of being a ship breaker? I wholeheartedly endorse the choice of Ship Breaker to receive the Michael L. Printz award for excellence in Young Adult literature.