When I started reviewing pirate books, I never would have guessed that I’d so often also be reviewing time-travel books. I suppose it makes sense, as piracy – the swashbuckling, romantic sort, anyways – has long gone the way of the dodo, and time-travel would seem an obvious method of connecting the modern protaganist with a true buccaneer adventure. Also, never would I have guessed all the different methods of time travel I’d discover – antique contraptions, offshore wormholes, time-stretching caverns… and now, sleep. With so many methods of time travel available to us, it’s really a wonder that real-world quantum physisists are having so much trouble pinning it down. Maybe they just don’t read enough pirate books.
Lafitte’s Black Box, by Jake Webber, is largely two stories interwoven. Two and a half, actually. The primary tale takes place in modern day New Orleans, where Deveraux (that’s a boy’s name, for those of us who don’t speak frenchie) and his best friend Sam discover what appears to be some doubloons, a map, and several clues (potentially piratey in nature) in an old abandoned house. Their pursuit of buried treasure takes them throughtout the New Orleans so many of us know and love, from the cemeteries to Jackson Square, and of course to Laffitte’s Blacksmith shop. The storytelling is lighthearted enough, largely taking the tone of a Hardy Boys adventure, while also wrestling with some of the trickier issues of childhood – new homes (Deveraux’s had recently relocated from another town), the difficulties of finding new friends while old friendships drift off, Sam’s broken family, etc. Unlike many pirate stories, in Lafitte’s Black Box the heroes are never allowed to exclusively emmerse themselves in the adventure at hand, but instead must constantly balance their treasure hunting with schoolwork, nosey classmates, chores, parents, and so on. It lends a certain realism, although at times the reader might share in the two boys’ desire to just get back to the “good stuff,” which of course means pirates.
As Sam and Deveraux scour New Orleans following clues, Deveraux himself has an additional challenge at hand, in that every night upon going to sleep he finds himself in the French Quarter of the early 1800’s, captured by (and soon working for) none other than Jean Laffitte himself. How he came to be experiencing a secondary life in the past each night is a mystery to Deveraux and the readers alike – it’s not a dream, as the consequences demonstrate themselves to be real. And it’s not a past life sort of thing, as he maintains his personality and memories from the modern days throughout. These nightly forays into the world of piracy nicely contrast with the contemporary tale, lending a “truer” pirate adventure to the equation – one freed of modern complications in favor of cutthroats and villains.
These two stories – new New Orleans and old New Orleans – interplay nicely, with the first allowing the reader to follow the myth of Jean Laffitte, and the second letting us meet the man himself. There is a third element to the book in which the author recounts a tale for Deveraux’s past in his old home town, but it strangely has nothing to do with the larger story at hand, and seems almost included by accident. Plus, it has nothing at all to do with PIRATES 😛
This is a decent young adult adventure novel. Reading it was easy and engaging, although at times I wondered if we couldn’t skip through some of the modern distractions brought on by the boys’ school and family and instead get back to adventuring (my attention span has never been the stuff of legends.) I did find the book with two real shortcomings though – the first being the periodic illustrations, which seemed rather rough and gave the book a more amateurish feel. But this is easily brushed over. More bothersome for me was the books conclusion, in that it was only barely present at all. I don’t wish to give away the ending, but I did feel that both primary stories sort of stopped with very little resolution at all. I suppose that, much like the continual interruption of parents and school work, vague, undefined closure is often a fact of life, but it can also detract from an otherwise enjoyable read.