The Skiff, The Scow and the Footbridge
Belfast Bay Books, 373pp, $16.95
Will Foster, is a twelve year old African American boy living with his adoptive single mother on Maine's midcoast. He is shy, unsure of himself and friendless; but his active imagination provides him with vivid fantasies of piratical heroics which distract him from his loneliness. His mother is a highschool science teacher and by default, an amateur carpenter, (what's a woman to do when faced with moving into a long neglected and worn out little cape?) When she isn't teaching and or remodeling and repairing, she frets about her son's solitary life.
Both their lives are transformed by an extravagant birthday gift. Will wants a radio controlled model sail boat. In the same catalog, his mother finds a set of plans to build your own boat, a real 16-foot wooden sail boat. She conspires with her mariner brother, Uncle John, and life begins to change at the Foster household.
The story gains speed as the boat takes form. Incidents at school, curious neighbors and intramural baseball games both contribute to and interfere with the building of the "Buccaneer."
In the meantime, an authentic old salt who hails from New Zealand has tied up his old wooden scow, Hatea at the landing-seeking respite from the high seas. Murray Shipman, who has seen better days, lives aboard and quickly develops a keen eye for the activities on shore as well as on the water. He befriends one lonely boy (Will) and then another (Frank). Vying for Murray's approval causes misunderstanding, jealousy and ultimately, destructive, but reversible consequences.
The story alternates settings between school and the various families' homes and of course, the river and the harbor. All the characters you'd expect to meet in a rural coastal town are satisfyingly present even the ones with the bit parts. A kindly pharmacist gives good advice. A better than average school disciplinarian metes out punishment and praise with a sharp sense of justice. A bad baseball coach demonstrates the damage that can be done by an inappropriate personality in such an influential position. And of course, the parents are present in wide variety…from the wise and concerned, if over stressed Helen, mother of Will to the easy going but watchful Sinclairs to the all but absent (would that he were) father of Frank.
All the young people are sympathetically presented but Frank O'Leary is particularly appealing. Quick, observant, and eager to please, he suffers under the bleary eye and beligerent nature of his alcoholic single father. More than anyone else he needs to succeed at something.
The process of building the Bucanneer and learning to sail her provides a salty platform for this odd mix of needy characters, (some more than others, both youngsters and adults) to ultimately become a warm and supportive extended family. As the kids play out their pirate fantasies they come face to face with the real world of big winds and rough water and grow wiser with each encounter.
The book is a bit long for a young adult novel but that will only increase the pleasure for the young reader who "gets into it."
The book is available from the author/publisher, Arch Davis, at 800-357-8091 for $16.95 plus $5 shipping.