Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel Ship Breaker begins like a punch to the face. Nailer, our teenage protagonist who doesn’t know exactly how old he is, lives somewhere off the Gulf Coast of America in a future version of our world. The future is bleak. Oceans have risen, natural resources like oil and gas have been virtually depleted, and ship breakers like Nailer spend their days working to break down abandoned ships for parts that can be sold and recycled. The work is grueling and dangerous. Within the first few chapters, Nailer nearly dies in a scene that is sure to make the skin crawl on readers who are claustrophobic.
Several chapters into the novel, Nailer and his friend Pima find a wrecked clipper ship that is full of goods worth more money than they can even imagine, they make big plans to sell their scavenge and live a better life. When they discover the body of a rich, young girl on the ship, Pima and Nailer argue about leaving her or, when they find out she is still alive, brokering a deal so that they all benefit. What ensues is a nail-biting race to avert the many dangers of this dystopian world and to find a way to live a better life.
Bacigalupi addresses issues of pollution, class differences, genetic engineering, slavery, child labor, greed, family, and religion. The world he constructs is both brutal and exquisitely beautiful in its detail. The characters are fully formed and easy to both love and hate. Surprising for myself was how, by the end of the novel, I had grown to enjoy the character of the half-man, Tool, who is initially introduced as blood-thirsty and incredibly frightening. Richard Lopez, Nailer’s father, is terrifying in his abject cruelty, his drug and alcohol addiction, and his absolute disregard for his son. In one scene in chapter five, Nailer barely escapes a violent confrontation with his father and, despite the many times his father has beaten him, he still has hope. “Nailer curled in on himself, glad to feel safe for the night. Tomorrow might be different, but this day had ended well. Tomorrow would handle itself” (Bacigaulpi 2009, 60).
There are many gorey and violent scenes in Ship Breaker, but none feel gratuitous. It is a horrifying world in which Nailer lives, but he still manages to find moments of compassion, of honesty, and of love. “At its core, the novel is an exploration of Nailer’s discovery of the nature of the world around him and his ability to transcend that world’s expectations” (Publishers Weekly 2010). Ship Breaker won the 2011 Printz Award and was nominated for a National Book Award in 2010. This is a novel for older or mature teens, but is also a fantastic springboard for discussion. Ask teen readers to compare aspects of Nailer’s world with present day. Compare Bright Sands beach, where the ship breakers live, to the modern day beach slums in Cambodia or Haiti. Don’t hesitate to share photographs. This is sure to be an eye-opening discussion for all involved.
Publishers Weekly. April 2010. Publishers Weekly.com. http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-316-05621-2. Accessed December 2, 2013.