Castaways of the Flying Dutchman

Yesterday’s 5th Grade Book Group book was Brian Jacques’ Castaways of the Flying Dutchman, a book that had been recommended by one of the group members.  Though I started out not liking the book much, by the end I was hooked by its vivid writing, great characters, and unique premise.  Divided into three unequal sections, the story begins with a young mute boy who winds up on the ill-fated ship The Flying Dutchman as he escapes from his cruel stepbrothers.  This first section of the book sets the stage for the boy’s future: when an angel condemns the captain and crew of the ship to wander the world for all eternity, that same angel spares the boy and his dog, granting them eternal life and youth in exchange for their helping those in the world who are in need.  Dog and boy are also granted the ability to speak and communicate with each other. 

The second small section of the novel covers the time that Neb (the boy, who later calls himself Ben) and Den (the dog, who later calls himself Ned) live with a poor shepherd in South America.  Neb and Den bring joy and love to Luis’s life, and though he dies a few short years after they arrive at his cottage, the angel tells them that they gave Luis the happiest years of his life.  Mission accomplished, time to move on.

The largest section of the book is the third, which fastforwards a couple of hundred years to an English village that has been threatened with destruction by an unscrupulous man who wishes to raze all of the homes and open a limestone factory.  Now called Ben, the boy and the dog, now called Ned wander on to the scene when they both feel called to the place (surely guided by the angel).  In my opinion, this chunk of the story is by far the best, as Ben and Ned work with the villagers to defeat the evil developer and to prove that the villagers own their properties.  Following clues in an ancient scavenger hunt, they work as a team to solve the mystery of where the deed to the village has been hidden, and of course Ben and Ned make many wonderful friends in the process.

There is a happy ending, but also a sad ending: the developer is thwarted and defeated, but Ben and Ned must move on just as the happiness begins, driven on to their next destination by the angel’s ringing of a bell, unable to bid goodbye to their new friends or to even pick up Ben’s rucksack before leaving.  Jacques has written two sequels to this adventure, which I’m anxious to read (and ashamed to admit were missing from our library’s collection).

As always, the real question here is: what did the book group think of the book?  Though more than half of the book group members hadn’t come close to finishing the book, we were still able to have a terrific conversation about it.  Surprising.  The kids who had read the whole book were gushingly enthusiastic about it, and some of those who hadn’t finished it were inspired to renew their copies and take them home once again.  (I suspect that those kids who didn’t read the entire book simply ran out of time, because the writing is denser than any of our recent books.)  In discussing the book, we teased out the reason that Jacques put Ben and Ned on The Flying Dutchman, made connections to movies and books (like Pirates of the Caribbean and Tuck Everlasting), and shared the bits of the story that we liked best.  There were no earth-shattering revelations in our book discussion, but it was lively and fun, and the kids proved once again that they have matured and grown into an excellent and intelligent book group. 

And if you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.  It’s not often that I do that!