Monday, September 06, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 215 (9/6) -- The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier

We've come to expect a certain shape to our stories for young readers -- the boy who runs away to follow his deathly ill grandfather's wishes will have unexpected (and remarkably apropos) skills to aid him in his travels, the young people he meets will very quickly become his strong friends, and everything will be wrapped up neatly, with explanations for everything, by the end. But The Unsinkable Walker Bean is more anarchic and chaotic than that, with characters pursuing their own ends, our hero more appropriately described as pudgy than as dashing, and awe-inspiring supernatural creatures with either competing reasons or no explication at all.

Walker is a boy of around ten, a bit soft in the middle, wearer of glasses, prone to spend his time drawing and designing odd machinery and creatures, in a world that the frontispiece map depicts as a twisted version of our own. He lives in the city of Winooski Bay, somewhere near where New York would be on our North America, but any larger political entities don't enter the story -- his is a world of 18th century seafarers and the pirates who prey on them, of small seaside towns and wooden ships. His father is a naval officer in the service of Winooski Bay -- or of whatever Winooski is part of -- and ignores Walker, to the point of seeming to forget that Walker is even his son. (A less charitable reading would be that Renier intermittently forgets that one of his nearly comic-opera naval officers is supposed to be Walker's father.) Walker's grandfather, though, is the same kind of man Walker should grow up into: smart, thoughtful, interested in both practical and fanciful matters, a man of deep learning as well as real worldly power.

But Admiral Bean came back from one voyage with something more dangerous than he expected -- a glowing skull from the bottom of the sea, a powerful supernatural relic from a hoard of skulls created by the gigantic hideous Merwitch sisters Tartessa and Remora from the remnants of the inhabitants of Atlantis that they slaughtered, long centuries before. The skulls legendarily show visions of the past, present and future -- the Merwitches use a giant wall of skulls at the bottom of the sea to divine everything that is happening in the world -- but its vision creates a slow wasting disease in anyone whose "blood and heart are not as thick" as those of the Merwitches. The Admiral is now bed-bound, and he pleads with Walker to take the skull back and throw it into the deep-sea trench it came from -- or else the Merwitches will come to take it back.

Walker hasn't decided to go when events shove him out of Winooski and onto a pirate ship -- where the pirate captain is soon bed-ridden from the vision of the skull, and the crew fallen under the influence of a strange man who calls himself Dr. Patches and claims to have a buyer for the skull far to the north in this worlds Europe-analogue, in the Laptev Sea. Walker's only allies -- the ones who would be his immediate friends in a more pedestrian book for younger readers -- are Shiv, a musically inclined boy about his age, and Genoa, the fierce redheaded young pirate woman who stole away the skull for the pirates (and nearly killed Walker during the raid). Walker does eventually use his skills and knowledge to try to follow his grandfather's wishes and get rid of the skull, but he has to convince the others to help him, and hide their work from Patches and most of the pirates.

And then, of course, the naval forces of Winooski Bay -- led by Captain Bean -- are after that skull as well. (And, oh, maybe his lost son as well, if they happen to find him.) Renier tells this story with great energy and enthusiasm, blowing his pages out with huge panels to excellent effect at the coming of particularly impressive scenes, but never falls into the expected grooves --
Walker's way isn't easy, and there's always yet another complication to make things worse.

The Unsinkable Walker Bean would be almost perfect as a rousing sea-adventure suitable for readers from 9 to 99 if not for one small flaw: it doesn't really end its story. The disposition of the skull is settled, true, but there are more questions left open at the end than there were at the beginning, and the last pages of this book promise a Book 2...when the previous two hundred pages (and entire outside packaging) of this book never whispered a word about it being a Book 1. I can only hope that the young readers who will be annoyed at not seeing a real ending will be heartened by the thought of a few hundred more pages of adventures of Walker, Shiv, Genoa, and the rest -- and, maybe, some kind of explanation for what Patches was, and what he was trying to drag them all to the Laptev for.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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