Title: When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man
Author: Nick Dybek
Genre: Contemporary fiction, literary fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publisher
First line: When my sister was a baby, my mother would lift her from the high chair and sing, “Shake, shake, shake. Shake out the devil.”
Goodreads blurb: Every fall, the men of Loyalty Island sail from the Olympic Peninsula up to the Bering Sea, to spend the winter catching king crab. Their dangerous occupation keeps food on the table but constantly threatens to leave empty seats around it.
To Cal, Alaska remains as mythical and mysterious as Treasure Island, and the stories his father returns with are as mesmerizing as those he once invented about Captain Flint before he turned pirate. But while Cal is too young to accompany his father, he is old enough to know that everything depends on the fate of those few boats thousands of miles north. He is also old enough to feel the tension between his parents over whether he will follow in his father’s footsteps, and to wonder about his mother’s relationship with John Gaunt, owner of the fleet.
Then Gaunt dies suddenly, leaving the business in the hands of his son, who seems intent on selling away the fishermen’s livelihood. Soon Cal stumbles on evidence that his father may have taken extreme measures to salvage their way of life. As winter comes on, his suspicions deepening and his moral compass shattered, he is forced to make a terrible choice.
When I saw Nick Dybek’s debut novel mentioned in an Imprint Read post on Beth Fish Reads, I commented that it looked like a fantastic read, especially since I grew up in the Puget Sound area of Washington State. I was then fortunate enough to be contacted by the wonderful Lydia from Penguin Group, of which Riverhead Books is an imprint, in order to send me a review copy. I am so glad, as When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man is a fantastic read.
The fishing community of Loyalty Island is a moody, atmospheric setting for this novel, making the town a character of its own. The people are so dependent on the crabbing industry, and when their livelihood – their very way of life – is threatened, they become desperate. When Cal begins to suspect that his father has done something terrible, he is torn between his loyalty to his father and the town, and his own conscience.
Dybek has written a haunting coming-of-age novel. As I read, my heart ached for Cal, for the impossible situation in which he finds himself. He enters into a strange friendship with Jamie, another crab fisherman’s son, and the way Dybek writes their divergent reactions to Cal’s discovery humanizes each boy, giving the characters authenticity.
This is a difficult review to write in that I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I can tell you that as the story progressed, a sense of impending doom kept me reading, looking for the resolution I hoped for. Dybek is definitely an author to watch.