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Pirates with parallels

The Freedom Merchants by Sherryl Jordan (Scholastic, $19.50)
Review by Nikki Slade Robinson

freedommerchantsI’ve just been on a roller-coaster ride from an idyllic 1600s Irish fishing village, across stormy seas to the land of the Barbary pirates, and back again. And a good ride it was too. The words weave a sense of calm, only to give a sudden twist, lurch, or pitch into the unknown. I was kept on my toes the whole time.

As with Ransomwood, Sherryl Jordan’s previous JF/YA title, The Freedom Merchants is beautifully written. The text flows richly, smoothly, effortlessly. The story wraps around the reader. The era, the people, the adventure all are believable and utterly absorbing.

Jordan is a Tauranga-based author. Her books have won or been shortlisted for awards in New Zealand, the UK, USA, Belgium and Germany. She’s been recognised with the USA School Library Journal Best of 1999, the 2001 Wirral Paperback of the Year, and the German 2001 Buxtehuder Bulle Prize for Best Young Person’s Book of the Year. In 2001 Jordan was awarded the Margaret Mahy Medal for her contribution to children’s literature, publishing and literacy.

Her latest story starts in a tiny fishing village in a screaming storm. Over the gale, boyish 13 year old Liam (the main character) and his family hear the tolling of the village’s warning bell. Is it a shipwreck, with sailors cast onto the rocks, needing assistance from the villagers? Or something more sinister? Or perhaps even both?

The village men rush to the aid of the shipwrecked sailors only to discover they are Barbary pirates from the northern coast of Africa, and an almighty conflict ensues. The story is too good to spoil it by telling you more – it;s enough to say it’s shocking and takes the entire village far outside their comfort zone.

As the seas calm the next day an uneasy peace is restored in the village, but the events of that stormy night have changed every one of the villagers. Liam was too young to go to the shore with the men. However, as events pan out, he finds himself increasingly taking on a major role, growing up fast in the process. He finds a deep friendship in the most unlikely place, a friendship that will later save his life.

When his brother and other villagers are captured by another band of Barbary pirates, it is Liam who sparks off a rescue plan. He finds himself travelling with a small band of Christian monks with bags full of gold, in search of his brother and the others taken from his village.

Though the book’s focus is Liam, a Catholic, there are underlying themes of the persecution of sections of society, slavery between Christian and Muslim, and especially the role of the redemption monks. While Jordan was doing research for her earlier book Finnigan and the Pirates, ‘…I discovered information about Barbary Pirates from Northern Africa… the pirates were Muslim, the ships they plundered were from Christian countries’. As she notes, the Barbary pirates were ‘ethnically cleansed’ by Christians in Spain in the 17th century. It’s another holocaust that few today really know much about, a fascinating piece of history. Jordan again: ‘…and it is these remarkable people [redemption monks] with their love, courage and sacrifice that I have written about. The characters I have invented… but their story is true’.

There are very clear parallels here between today’s Muslim-Christian religious conflict and those of the 17th century, making for a very relevant read. The book is certainly not preachy but it is good to see such a strong message of friendships between religions being possible. That still applies today and should never be forgotten.

This is a powerful read, that will almost certainly find favour with any 10–15 year old who likes a stirring adventure. It has an immensely satisfying ending. And it’s not just for the boys either. If you’re like me, and love a fast paced, vivid voyage into the imagination, you’ll find plenty of freedom here.