Last Skipjack, by Mary Hastings Fox, tells the story of a group of children growing up in the small town of Hurlock, Maryland. The events take place in the 1950s and the 1960s. The title is taken from the type of boat which was, the author informs us, ‘the oldest kind of oyster dredging boat on the Chesapeake.’The book opens in 1955 and, including the epilogue, runs through to 1978. Ten-year-old Celie Mowbray and her younger sibling Hannah strike up a friendship with black sisters Ava and Sari Skipton. The Skipton girls arrive with a group of migrant workers who are seeking employment on the Mowbray farm. They are joined by Ava and Sari’s stepbrother Gabe and the children quickly form a close bond. The core of this story is the children’s enduring friendship across the years in the heart of a highly segregated, deeply discriminatory society.
The book is multi-layered, however, and other themes are explored too. Sibling relationships, love, bereavement, together with the trials of growing up in difficult family circumstances, are all considered. The Chesapeake Bay area is a society in the throes of economic change, so poverty and hardship are commonplace. Hard times and lack of employment opportunities contribute to the rising racial tensions in the area, even as the harsh conditions are experienced, to some degree, by both the black and white communities. As the narrative moves into the 1960s, the campaign for black civil rights has a major impact on the area. The group of children, now young adults, are caught up in the seismic events happening around them, events which threaten to tear their friendships apart.
I enjoyed this book the further I got into it. The story starts when the main characters are quite young and, for the first few chapters, one has the impression that it is a book written for children or teenagers. The young characters seem trapped, at this stage, between discussing childish concerns, or alternatively, having thoughts or making observations that seem a bit beyond the ken of children their age. Happily, the book grows and matures with the children. It is much more adult in every respect from about the sixth or seventh chapter onwards.
The characters are authentic and credible, their surroundings rich in detail. We are given a panoramic view of both: the story is told, not from the perspective of a single character, but rather from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. This allows the reader to see and hear so much more, as we are experiencing the world of the novel through the eyes of many different characters. The author shows great skill in adapting the narrative voice depending upon whose perspective is being given.
I also appreciated the device of commencing most of the chapters with a Headnote. These few lines provide the historical and social context for the chapter that follows. Information is provided on social, economic and geographical issues pertaining to the area. Later chapters describe the political upheaval in the area, at which point the Headnotes feature inspirational quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
I am happy to give this book four out of four stars. I picked up a few minor typographical mistakes, but in a book of over three hundred pages, these were by no means excessive. I would recommend it to those who like historical novels, even though the history dealt with is still recent. It has a few ‘curse’ words and some erotic scenes. It also deals with difficult issues such as racism, bereavement, and sexual violence. For those reasons, it is probably more appropriate for adult readers. There is nothing of a religious nature that should cause offense.