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Black Duck
Janet Taylor Lisle

Publishing Information: Philomel Books: New York, 2006
ISBN: 0399239634 / 0739348825 (Audio)
: 240 p.
Ages: 12 & Up

Inspired by very real accounts of the Black Duck, a legendary rum-running boat that worked the New England shores during the Prohibition era, this story begins when Ruben and Jeddy find a dead body in an evening suit washed up on the shore. They are certain it has to do with smuggling liquor. It is spring 1929, Prohibition is in full swing, and many in their community are involved. Soon the boys and Jeddy's sister Marina are drawn in, suspected by rival bootlegging gangs of taking something crucial off the dead man. When Ruben meets the daring captain of the Black Duck, it isn't long before he's keeping dangerous company. (From book jacket cover)

Book Talk:
It's 1929 during Prohibition in Newport, Rhode Island and Ruben Hart and his best friend Jed McKenzie just found a dead body dressed in a tuxedo washed up on the shore. It was a man, all rubbery-looking from being in the water a long time. He also had a bullet hole in his neck. There was nothing in his pockets except a pipe and a tobacco pouch. Jed's father was the chief of police and the boys raced home to report their find before the seagulls pecked the body to pieces. While running, Ruben realized he still had the pipe and pouch so he slipped them in his pocket.  

Jed's dad was away, so the deputy, Charlie Price, was informed. Hours later the deputy showed up and went with the boys to look at the body. But it was gone! Charlie wanted to drop the case since there was no body and the chief seemed to be of the same opinion.

But the boys were determined to do a little investigating of their own. Money was hard to come by in 1929 and the locals were supplementing their income by smuggling liquor on their boats. Many in the community supported the smugglers even against the Coast Guard and the police. What was worse was the "Big Boys" (Mafia) from Boston and Providence wanted all the action for themselves and were putting pressure on the citizens and the law to cave in to their demands.

So when Ruben and Jed went to talk to old one-eye Tom Morrison to see if he had seen anything, he said he did indeed. And as the boys leaving, they saw three guys motor in with a high-powered boat coming to see Tom and they were all carrying machine guns.
Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Liquor Smuggling
Mystery stories, American
Newport, Rhode Island

Awards & Reviews:
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2007

Booklist, May 1, 2006, p.42
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2006
Publishers Weekly, May 1, 2006, pp.64 (Starred Review)
School Library Journal, May 2006, p.132 (Starred Review)

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. What is prohibition?
  2. What was a bootlegger?
  3. What do you think happened to the body on the beach? (Where did it go)
  4. Ruben's secret knowledge about the Black Duck and the people involved is important to law enforcement. Why does he keep silent?
    What do you think "the ticket" was that the men were searching for?
  5. What is the dilemma that Jeddy's father, the Chief of Police, faces?
  6. What was the rift that drove the two friends, Jeddy & Ruben, apart?
  7. What role does the Mafia play in the story?
  8. What was the role of the Coast Guard in the story?
  9. What was Jeddy's big dilemma?
  10. Some people claim the Coast Guard was just doing it's duty when the Black Duck was fired on; others say they acted rashly and without due warning. Which opinion do you support and why?

Curriculum Tie-Ins:
Social Studies and Literature: Research the Prohibition and its impact on communities. Stage a mock trial. Someone has been caught smuggling liquor or running a speakeasy. Defend and prosecute with witnesses giving both perspectives. Have a jury decide the verdict.

Write a newspaper account of a smuggler, a gangster, or a hero from the Coast Guard and the Prohibition.

Related Websites:
Providence Journal article about a big Rhode Island rumrunner -

information about the Black Duck Incident from the book Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective

"Bugsy Siegel, the Mob, and Prohibition," CrimeLibrary -

"Prohibition ," Infoplease- 

"The 1920's: Prohibition," Eyewitness to History -

Prohibition An article about the Mob wars from the Detroit News -  

The Mafia -

Author's Website:

The Adventures of Michael MacInnes by Jeff Carney, 2006
Al Capone (biography) by Diane Yancey, 2003
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, 2004
Bill by Chap Reaver, 1994
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Curtis, 1999
Claire of the Wild Rose Inn by Jennifer Armstrong, 1994
Harlem Summer by Walter Dean Myers, 2007
I Am the Cheese
, by Robert Cormier, 1977
Moonshiner' Son by Carolyn Reeder, 1993
Most Precious Blood by Susan Beth Pfeffer, 1991
Nabbed!: The 1925 Journal of G. Codd Fitzmorgan by Bill Doyle, 2006
Nowhere to Call Home by Cynthia DeFelice, 1999
Phoning a Dead Man by Gillian Cross, 2002
Ruby Tuesday by Jennifer Anne Kogler, 2005
Say Hello to the Hit Man: A Mystery by Jay Bennett, 1976
Skydiving ... the the Extreme: Chute Roll by Sigmund Brouwer, 1996
Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman, 2002 (A 2004 RITBA Nominee)
Son of the Mob, Hollywood Hustle by Gordon Korman, 2004
The Storyteller's Daughter by Jean Thesman, 1997
Welcome to Wahoo by Dennis Carr, 2006
Witnessby Karen Hesse, 2001
Year of the Hangman by Gary Blackwood (A 2005 RITBA Nominee)

Other Books by the Author:
The Dancing Cats of Applesap, 1984
Sirens and Spies, 1985
The Great Dimpole Oak, 1987
Afternoon of the Elves, 1989
The Lampfish of Twill, 1991
Forest, 1993
Looking for Juliette, 1994
The Gold Dust Letters, 1994
A Message from the Match Girl, 1995
Angela's Aliens, 1996
The Lost Flower Children, 1999
The Art of Keeping Cool, 2000
How I Became a Writer and Oggie Learned to Drive, 2002
The Crying Rocks, 2003

About the Author:
Born: February 13, 1947; Englewood, New Jersey - A writer of fables, fantasies, allegories, and historical fiction, Janet Taylor Lisle often lifts the curtain between the real and the imagined, giving her readers a peek at the supernatural forces at work on the other side. She says that she believes in the unknown and thinks of magic as being a part of the world that is still waiting to be discovered."

Lisle grew up in Connecticut and Rhode Island, whose towns and villages she later used as settings for her tales. She worked as a VISTA volunteer for two years and as a journalist for a decade. Her experiences led her to be as comfortable writing about real-world conflicts as she is with fantasy. In Sirens and Spies , for example, fourteen-year-old Elsie Potter discovers a shameful secret about her violin teacher, Renee Fitch. Elsie is so repulsed by the secret that she refuses to visit Miss Fitch in the hospital, where the teacher is recovering from a brutal attack. Elsie's sister Mary takes a more liberal view, however, and while the full story of Miss Fitch's past unfolds, the girls learn a lesson in forgiveness and redemption.

In The Art of Keeping Cool , set in World War II, a New England boy, Robert, comes face to face with the largest and most powerful long-range weapons of the time. While struggling to unravel the mystery of his father's estrangement from his own domineering father, Robert and his cousin Eliot make friends with a painter suspected of being a German spy. The boys must prevail against the hatred and betrayal of the community during a tense time of war.

The undiscovered magic of The Lampfish of Twill lies under the sea. This book tells of an orphan boy, Eric, who lives with a stern and emotionally distant aunt. His only real friend is a pet sea gull. Determined to net a giant lampfish, much prized for its bones and meat, Erik befriends a deranged, old fisherman who leads him to a magical world beneath the waves, where motion stops and time stands still. The images are stark and surreal. The theme is that truth is not an absolute; it depends on the viewpoint of the truth seeker.

Lisle is fond of animals and often converses with them, believing that humans do not possess the only languages in the world. Communication and social structure among animals play an important part in Forest . Twelve-year-old Amber unwittingly invades the kingdom of the squirrels and nearly triggers a war. However, she manages to avoid violence through some bold diplomacy. Lisle's love of natural history shows in the details of squirrel life she weaves into the story. Her respect for all living things is apparent, too, in The Great Dimpole Oak . In that fable, two boys who are at odds with a bully join forces with a town matriarch, an Indian swami, and a landowner to save a historic tree.

Janet Taylor Lisle has won wide recognition for her work. Sirens and Spies , The Lampfish of Twill , and Forest were among the Best Books of the Year named by the School Library Journal . The Art of Keeping Cool won the Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award and was nominated for the Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award. The Great Dimpole Oak was a Golden Kite Honor Book. (by Faith Hickman Brynie, Salem Press for EBSCO Publishing, July 2003)

| ©2004 - Rhode Island Teen Book Award Committee | Aaron Coutu, Chair