Review of Pirates of Nirado River by Michael Setala
Pirates of Nirado River
by Michael Setala
Pirates of Nirado River takes place in an alternative universe where kids have been forced to form ad-hoc pirate gangs that cruise down the rivers around Dog Lake in tricked out canoes. These gangs fight wars with crap apples, commit arson on abandoned cabins, and poach rabbits off Crown land. When one or more gangs have a dispute, they settle it through complex negotiation, kidnapping, and bondage.
All of the above is true, except for the “alternative universe” thing. Actually, the pirate gangs are just “clubs” (the precise amount of formal organization is never made clear) that children belong to based on age group. The Nirado River Pirates are one such club, with children aged 11 and 12 in it. There are a few other bands: the Dog Lake Pirates, the Spruce River Pirates, and the Silver Mountain Pirates. But the (potential) arson, rabbit poaching, and rampant crab apple warfare are all true; I swear.
This book is perhaps the furthest from my usual fare that I’ve read all year. I’m making a conscious effort to read more young adult fiction in an attempt to stay connected to what the students I’ll be teaching are reading. This, of course, is not young adult fiction; it’s a chapter book billed for ages 7–12. I am doubtful I would ever have picked this up on my own.
The school where I’m doing my student teaching practicum is reading this. Every class has to read it together and do some kind of activity based on the book, culminating in an assembly next week with a visit from the author. Michael Setala is local and the book is set nominally in an area outside our city, though it doesn’t really matter. Our class is reading the book this week, so I read it in preparation. At 78 pages of large print, it was not a massive infringement upon my time. Indeed, my tea hardly got cold.
Children’s literature is, in some ways, a whole different ballgame from adult literature. I don’t know how to review it (or really how to read it, for that matter), so take this review with a grain of salt. From what I know of children’s literature, though, writing it must be hard compared to writing adult fiction. An author writing adult fiction has the benefit of being on relatively even ground with the audience, who will have about the same vocabulary and comprehension skills (though authors are probably more practised in these categories for occupational reasons). With children’s literature, the author is writing to an audience whose skills are neither developed nor nuanced. Moreover, the variation across and within age groups is staggering. Some 6-year-olds are reading chapter books for 10-year-olds while their older siblings struggle with the 6-year-old material. So not only do authors have to get in the right mindset to write stories that will captivate kids, but they need to write in a language that is meaningful.
What I’m trying to say is that I have the utmost respect for children’s authors and their labours.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll let just anything slide. If anything, I’m going to be more critical, because what children read is almost as important as what they eat—food fuels the body; books fuel the mind.
Pirates of Nirado River is set to the northwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Thunder Bay is my hometown and the only place I want to live (though I may move away for a few years until I find work here). I love this place, even though I am not the most outdoorsy type of person, and I’m always thrilled to learn of fiction set here. While this book is set here, it’s not really set here. All the author does is drop the names of some local rivers and landforms. I feel like the story could be transposed to any other location with rivers and a mountain and work just as well. Perhaps this universality is a virtue for the book and its potential audience, but I think it undermines any argument in favour of this book simply because “it’s set in Thunder Bay”.
For all its sweeping universality, though, Pirates of Nirado River contains a lamentably uncomplicated story. The Dog Lake Pirates are trying to burn down the Nirado River Pirates’ cabin in retaliation for something they think the Nirado River crew has done. So the venerable Captain Corey decides to negotiate, and after several misunderstandings, all gets resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and they sit down for some rabbit stew. I suppose Setala is trying for the message that compromise and conversation are better ways to resolve conflict than all-out fighting; he wraps the message in several scenes of crab apple warfare for some action goodness. But the conflict and its resolution seem wildly unbalanced.
At its core, the conflict is basically a territorial squabble between gangs. It’s not very interesting, so I can understand why it only takes a few chapters to resolve. There is no real meat to the story, just scene after scene of the Nirado River Pirates paddling up and down the river to meet with various gangs and fling crab apples. It’s supposed to be invigorating and suspenseful, but it’s unremarkable more than anything else.
The only part of the plot that really got my attention was the two attempts to burn down the cabin used by the Nirado River Pirates. I don’t know who owns the cabin or the land it’s on, but I doubt they would take kindly to arson. What kind of “club” structure is this that encourages children to retaliate by burning down cabins? And this cabin is off a lake, presumably in a wooded area, where an uncontrolled conflagration can easily lead to a forest fire. Where is the forest ranger? Who’s supervising these hooligans?
On some level I’m sure I’m taking this too seriously when I should just sit back and enjoy where the story takes me. I disagree, but the plot isn’t the only problem with Pirates of Nirado River. Its characters are similarly dull and lifeless. Now, just as Setala does an excellent job describing the action, he also does a good job describing the characters themselves. I don’t take issue with how he describes them. But the characters he creates through these descriptions are just as uncomplicated as the conflict they solve. There are never any moments of doubt, nor are there moments of heroism, of treachery and betrayal, or of regret. Children experience emotions every bit as complex as adults; they may not be able to understand the emotions using the same language we do, but those emotions are there and should be portrayed in the characters they read about.
Also, Pirates of Nirado River is a boys-only book. The single female character is someone’s mother, and I think she has about one line. There are no older or younger sisters hanging about, let alone any girls in the gangs proper. From cover to cover, this is a book about boys doing stereotypical boy activities. Granted, they resolve their problems through level-headed discussion, which is commendable. Ultimately, though, if we ask girls to be a part of a reading experience—such as when an entire school reads a book—we should try to find books that will appeal to them as well. I’m not saying Pirates of Nirado River appeals only to boys, but it doesn’t go out of its way to make it easy for girls to identify with the characters or their problems. Despite its positive theme and upbeat conclusion, as far as genders go in this book, girls are invisible—and I find that deeply problematic.
I feel a little bad adding this book to Goodreads and then eviscerating it. To be fair, it’s not so much poorly written as it is poorly conceived. The book itself is probably—I don’t have much experience to go on—fairly typical for the kind of fare I expect we’re feeding children. But it’s not amazing, and if anything it’s too simple, especially for an older audience like my Grade 8 class. In the afterword, we learn that the author wrote the first draft of this story when he himself was around 12 years old … and frankly, that explains a lot. There’s a reason most authors have consign the first novel they ever write to the deepest, darkest corner of a locked drawer in the bottom of their filing cabinet: no matter what the skill level or the intent, the product just isn’t that good. Pirates of Nirado River is an earnest effort and definitely something I would love reading if it came from someone in Grade 7 or Grade 8. From an adult trying to write to children … it’s lacking.