Norman Jorgensen, The Smuggler’s Curse, Fremantle Press, 3 Oct 2016, 320pp., $16.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781925164190
Looking for a swashbuckling tale, the likes of Treasure Island, but set along the west coast of Australia? Look no further than Norman Jorgensen’s The Smuggler’s Curse.
When Red Read thinks his Ma has sold him to the infamous pirate Black Bowan, not only is he not impressed, he’s terrified! A life on the sea is not what he imagined for himself and besides, isn’t pirating kinda dangerous? As it turns out, yes it is. Red faces murderous pirates and brutal Dutch officials as well as the relentless forces of Mother Nature. But he also learns a nifty trick or two from Black Bowan on his quest to earning a gentleman’s fortune.
One thing that really struck me about this book was its no-holds barred account of the pirating life — well, as far as the violence and ruthlessness is concerned, although there are plenty of suggestions of the bawdiness too. I haven’t read many recent books, aimed at this age group, where men’s head are completely blown off, people tortured and pirates routinely dispatched to their deaths. So with this in mind, if your intended reader is a bit squeamish, this may not be the book for them.
Having said that, had these scenarios been watered down or excluded, the book would have lost a lot of its charm, vigour and authenticity. It also provides an excellent starting point for discussions on how things have changed in Australia. Can you imagine being sent off to serve with a pirate, where learning to handle a gun is the difference between life and death? Surely that doesn’t happen in the world today, right? Or does it?
The story contains a lot of subtext and colourful language (no real swearing, just witty insults) which gives the book depth and a historical feel. The characters are well drawn and interesting and Jorgensen does a good job of including some formidable women – no easy feet in an 19th Century pirating story.
The book’s main strength though is the description of exotic places and life on a ship. I don’t generally enjoy much description, but in this case it was done well, so I not only enjoyed learning what a jib is, but found the details of Sumatran jungles, Singapore and Fremantle engaging.
What I didn’t enjoy as much were the times where the action and emotion was a little forced, particularly at the start, with too many rhetorical questions such as: How can my mother have sold me? What are the chances I’ll end up someone’s lunch? — that sort of thing – but, as the plot unfolded, this settled down and didn’t stick out as much.
Jam packed with action and adventure, this story will appeal mainly to boys in that 10-14 age group. They will no doubt relate to Red and the way he bumbles through that awkward age between childhood and becoming a pirate — I mean, a man.
A solid, Australian tale filled with adventure and sure to delight any pirate lover.
Reviewed by Renee Mihulka