A pirate adventure story—rife with ghosts, Native American legends, ancient curses, hidden treasure, and a bogeyman—features a dog-loving boy on a mission.
Fair warning to the squeamish: Winkelstein’s (Brisko: A True Tale of Holocaust Survival, 2014, etc.) middle-grade novel, as narrated by an escaped slave known as the Black Doctor, “is not a soft one.” Death is a constant, gruesome companion, appropriate for a tale of vengeance and its repercussions. Set in 1745, Capt. William Kidd III is a 14-year-old pirate who has marked a course for the Devil—a beastly bogeyman plaguing southern New Jersey—who killed his pappy. Accompanied by a steadfast poodle named Black Dog, Kidd and his devoted crew know the journey will be dangerous, but when the Adventure Galley runs aground in the Batsto River, a terrible fate befalls them. During the turmoil, the Devil kidnaps the pirate’s beloved poodle (Kidd “remembered Black Dog’s howl and those disfigured, mutant feet that had carried her away”). Stranded in the Pine Barrens, Kidd changes his objective from revenge to rescue. The Black Doctor saves the pirate from a squirmworthy fate and offers guidance for unlocking mysteries in the teen’s past. When British soldiers capture Kidd, Tilda McKenzie, a tough local girl who looks cute and kicks butt, helps him escape, leading him toward his father’s hidden treasure. The pirate dialogue (“ ‘That’s the trouble o’ landlubbers!’ cried Bone. ‘Too trustin’!’ ”) feels authentic and immersive, with just a few missteps (“ ‘Ew, Black Dog,’ Kidd said. ‘Gross’ ”). A variety of subplots—the Devil’s back story, Kidd’s parentage, a budding romance, Native American legends, magical treasure, ghostly visitations, even a trip to “Fiddler’s Green”—jumbles the narrative. Although the climax brings all the elements together, the result stretches suspension of disbelief to the limit. Not helping are dei ex machina additions that provide convenient but unnecessary plot devices; Kidd is engaging enough without superpowers. Nonetheless, pages turn quickly in this tightly woven, action-packed tale with unusual twists, real heart, and a surprising conclusion that promises even more wondrous escapades to come.
Like Kidd’s faithful crew, readers should follow this battle-tested pirate (with the insecurities and loyalties of a teenager) to strange and exciting destinations.