Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Waterman's Boy

by Susan Sharpe

Thumbs mostly down.

Ben Warren and his friend Matt, are growing up along Chesapeake Bay.  Ben's dad is a waterman.  He does crabbing and clamming and oystering, all according to their season.  The harvests are not as big as they used to be.  Money is harder to come by and the towns along the bay are transitioning from home-town fishing villages to tourist destinations.

David Watchman is a scientist who is studying the microbiology of the bay to try to determine the causes of the decline in the health of its flora and fauna.  Ben's father, Duke, along with others who make their living from the bay,  is suspicious of scientists, and the government regulations and programs of which such scientists are harbingers.

This potentially volatile situation comes to a head when Ben and Matt discover an illegal dumping site hidden in the marsh.  The site is filled with all kinds of junk including many barrels of what appears to be waste oil.

The story unfolds into a happy ending.  Duke Warren comes to respect David Watchman.  The town decides to study the effects of expansion before allowing more shopping centers and resorts and attractions to develop.  Everyone realizes they want to save the bay and if they all get along and respect each other this will happen smoothly.

Anyone who loves both nature and small government will appreciate the quandary in which these town folks find themselves.  My main complaint with the story is that the solution appears simple.  The characters are somewhat one-dimensional.  Duke Warren is set in his ways and is portrayed as somewhat naive for not wanting government regulations.  The bad guy ends up being a newcomer to town (aka capitalist) who is involved in a business catering to the tourist trade.  The scientist and Ben are the only multi-dimensional characters.  Everyone else is a stereotype.

My second complaint with the story is not so much with the story itself as with the format of the book and what it implies.  The book is obviously designed to be used in a classroom, because it has, in the front flap, one of those charts to show which students used it which years.  As far as literature goes, the book leaves much to be desired.  I can't imagine it being useful to teach about literature and good writing.  The best use to which this story could be used in a classroom is to teach about pollution and environmentalism.  I have a problem with using such one-dimensional characters to accomplish this.  People are not only naive or evil or good or thoughtful.  And in real life the solutions to problems such as those portrayed in the book are never simple.  People and communities are affected by pollution and expansion and a changing income base on a multitude of levels.  It seems somewhat manipulative to portray such a simple solution.  I don't blame the author for this.  I have no idea of her intentions.  But using the book  in a classroom to teach some sort of morality based upon such a simple solution seems somewhat dishonest.

Yet a third hurdle to my endorsement of the book is that Ben and Matt break some major rules and behave in a dangerous manner in order to help find the bad guy.  The author does have an authority figure point this out to the boys, but then they are celebrated and thanked profusely by the community, which could tend to outweigh the  effect of the rebuke in the mind of a young reader who might be drawn to the perceived heroism of the boys.

So to sum up, the plot is not bad.  In fact the plot itself is somewhat well done.  The yarn is good.

The characters ought to be better.  The implications of how the book might be used are frightening.  Any moral lessons are questionable and ought to include parental involvement.

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