by Jeffrey Canton
While Pottermania is taking the globe by storm, Canadian kids have a reason of their own to celebrate. Iain Lawrence, whose first book, The Wreckers, was greeted with critical acclaim last year, has just published The Smugglers. This sequel, which, if possible, is even more exciting than its predecessor, is sure to cement Lawrence’s reputation for literary excellence.
The Wreckers introduced readers to fourteen-year-old John Spencer. The only survivor when his father’s ship is wrecked off the coast of Cornwall, John is pursued by Cornish brigands convinced that he knows the whereabouts of a smuggled treasure in gold. Discovering that his father has also survived and is being held prisoner, he has to act quickly but doesn’t know to whom he should turn. Simon Mawgan, the village squire and his would-be protector, seems to have dark secrets of his own, while his niece, Mary, seems to be a true friend but won’t tolerate any talk that suggests that Mawgan might himself be a Wrecker.
Readers of The Smugglers will have no doubt as to the outcome of one of The Wreckers’ storylines as we join John and his father two years later en route to Dover. His introduction to the sea may have been fraught with spine-chilling danger, but John cannot imagine a more satisfying life than being aboard a sailing ship. In a last effort to make his fortune, John’s father purchases a schooner, The Dragon, and John is made owner’s rep, second only to the captain.
But from the start, there’s mystery in the air. John is warned by a stranger sharing the coach to Dover that The Dragon will bring bad luck and worse: “Steer clear of that ship, young John. She’ll bring you trouble and misery. She’ll bring you death.” No sooner does he board and begin preparing The Dragon for her voyage than his father sends news of the murder of the ship’s captain. John finds himself under the wing of Captain Crowe, a rum old salt if there ever was one and who knows more about smuggling than he should. In short order, readers find themselves caught up in a riveting tale of suspense and intrigue full of secret codes, corpses, contraband, and a host of highwaymen, murderers, pirates, and smugglers.
Lawrence has stunningly re-created the England of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, without idealizing the times. You feel the dirt and the poverty and the ruthlessness of those bygone days in these dark and powerful thrillers. Young readers will find themselves plunged into the midst of a world filled with tall ships, ghostly sea shanties, Cornish legends, grisly danger, black-hearted murderers, noble and true companions, and adventure galore. Most striking is the language and tone of these novels: Lawrence has it just right and readers will truly feel transported back to another time and place.
The Wreckers and The Smugglers are a great way to introduce contemporary kids to classic sea adventures like Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island and Faulkner’s Moonfleet—books to which Lawrence admits he is indebted. Lawrence’s books are sure to become classics that new readers will be eager to delve into as they explore a grand literary tradition.