Black Duck

George Lowther

Book Summary

If you like reading about mysteries, especially ones involving death, then the book, The Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle is probably the book for you. This book takes place in Newport, Ri, in 1939 when prohibition was enforced. Prohibition was a time in the United States where alcohol was illegal. In this book, five main characters, Jeddy McKenzie, Ruben Hart, Marina McKenzie, Billy Brady, and Tom Morrison, all experience some part of a life that includes smuggling alcohol. A boat that transports the illegal alcohol is called the Black Duck. This boat represents some of the smuggling that takes place during prohibition.

In this book, one type of conflict was an external conflict, man vs society. This conflict occurred when Billy goes against the government to break the law and smuggle alcohol. An example of this is when Billy Brady was explaining how a ticket work’s when dealing with alcohol. “A ticket, what the boys call a document that proves you’ve got a paid contract for a shipment of liquor. Usually means a big shipment, one that’s arriving on a freighter.” (pg. 135) This is an example of a man vs society conflict because Billy was choosing to break the law and not follow it.

Jeddy and Ruben were best friends who found a dead body when they were lobster hunting. Finding this dead body started a series of events that ended the friendship between Jeddy and Ruben but also led to the climax of the story. The rising action, in the story, Black Duck is after the two boys find the dead body. Ruben is interested in this situation and wanted to find out more about it. Jeddy did not want to do the same as Ruben. Ruben actually went through the dead man's pockets and found a tobacco pouch. When Ruben took the tobacco pouch he never told Jeddy. ”I pushed my fingers down into the tobacco and poked around… Before me lay one half of a fifty dollar bill.” The half fifty-dollar bill was important to the smugglers and this ended up being another conflict in the friendship of Jeddy and Ruben.

Like every story, this one has a climax and a resolution. The climax of the book is when after Ruben explores the world of smuggling alcohol and gets invited to participate in one of the missions aboard the Black Duck. Without Jeddy's positive influences, Ruben says yes to going on the Black Duck the night of the alcohol stealing. Although this was a very dangerous thing for Ruben to do, he was so intrigued in the alcohol business that he had to say yes. The resolution of this dangerous mission for Ruben was when the Black Duck was attacked and bullets were flying towards the boat and the people on it. Ruben fell of overboard, but luckily got into a lifeboat. Because he was not on the main boat, Ruben ended up being the only one who ended up alive with no injuries.

The Black Duck explored what the United States was like during prohibition and how this law affected people's lives. Although it was illegal, smuggling alcohol was a popular thing during prohibition and many people were willing to put their lives at risk just to break this law in order to get money for their family.

Spotlight on History

  • Back then; money did not come easily for people. Jeddy and Ruben, both kids, always kept an eye out for an opportunity to make some money.That is why these two boys were on the beach looking for lobster pots with marking because those were worth 10 cents returned to their owners. “We were fourteen years old and in dire need of funds. You couldn’t get a red penny out of your parents in those days. They didn’t have anything to spare.” (pg. 9)

  • During this time period, alcohol of any type was not permitted in America, so it was not uncommon to see an empty bootleg crate in the area.When Jeddy and Ruben found a dead body in the water, next to a bootleg crate, which made them think the dead body had to do something with smuggling. “All we saw was a busted up wooden crate knocking around in the waves… It was a bootleg case. A thing that we had come across before on the beach. If you were lucky, and we never were that I could recall, there would be bottles still wedged inside- whiskey, vodka, brandy, even champagna- smuggled liquor that could bring a good price if you knew what to do with it. Jetty and I weren’t law breakers. We’d never even had a drink. But like a lot of us folks along the coast, we weren’t against keeping our eyes open. If there was a chance of profit in it.” (pg. 10)

  • Back then people did not have the modern technology that we have today so it was uncommon for families to have telephones in the house. The Mackenzies were one of the lucky families because since Mr.Mackenzie was a police man the whole family got a new telephone because the town wanted, and needed, to be able to contact Mr.Mackenzie even at home. “The Mackenzie’s telephone was new to the house, a wall model tucked into the special alcove under the staircase.” (pg. 21)

  • Since America outlawed alcohol and canada was not as strict, rumrunners usually got their alcohol from Canada. When the rumrunners had the alcohol they wanted, they transported it to America to sell it for a good price. “ ‘That’s the story the coast guard’s been telling,’ Billy said, a bitter tone in his voice. ‘I believe different. There was an explosion, all right, but it came after, when the boat went up on the rocks. My father was shot dead at the wheel. With a machine gun.’ ‘Was he smuggling?’ Marina asked. ‘Who wants to know?’ Billy fired back.” (pg. 132-133) This activity was illegal. In order for people to make connections to smuggle this alcohol in they had ripped fifty dollar bills to make sure they were dealing with the right people to make the transaction.

  • With all this illegal activity going on in the 1920’s people in the coast guard were not above breaking the law. people in the coast guard accepted bribes to make money themselves. “ ‘The trouble is that the coast guard can’t keep up. Our local police have no support. There’s too much smuggling going on.’ ‘They’re in a league with it, most of them, making a bundle for themselves under the table… It’s all commerce and greed.’ “ (pg. 42)


Ruben's Character Trait

People always thought that Ruben Hart was a boy who never broke the law and was always responsible with his decisions, yet Ruben in fact was a reckless young boy. Ruben grew up in a good environment with his dad and family in New York. His family wanted to raise him to be responsible so he worked with his dad in Riley’s Store. Ruben also had friends that had an impact on him and encouraged him to do the right thing. This encouragement ended up being the end of Ruben and Jeddy’s friendship because Jeddy proved he was more responsible than Ruben. An example of this is when Ruben found the fifty dollar bill and hid it. “I tucked it between the pages of my geometry book that night… One day at school… I heard a voice in the back of me say: ‘Here, Ruben, you dropped something.’ I turned around to find Jeddy holding out the piece of bill… ‘Saving up to buy something with that?’... ‘I found it in the dead man’s tobacco pouch, all rolled up,’ I explained in a low voice." (pg. 122) This is another example of Ruben being reckless because he did something and did not tell his friend about it because he knew he would not approve.

Another example of how Ruben was reckless is when Ruben agreed to be the fifth man on the Black Duck the night of the big alcohol stealing. Even though Ruben knew he was putting his life at risk he was reckless enough to take this chance. “There wasn’t any to think about this amazing proposition, and even if there had been, I believe I’d have come to the same decision. It rose up through my blood on a reckless tide of defiance, the same wild feeling I’d been nursing all that year of wanting to get out and prove something to myself. Nothing I could do would hold it back. Yes, I’ll go! I answered.” Pg. 228

Turning Points

  • 1. The first turning point of the book is when Ruben and Jeddy found a dead body floating in the water while they were hunting for lobster pots. This is a turning point because this body makes the stories that they've heard about the danger of smuggling alcohol realistic.

  • 2. Another turning point in the Black Duck is when Ruben decides to steal a tobacco pouch from the dead body and not share the news with Jeddy, thus losing Jeddy’s trust. This is important because Jeddy always convinced Ruben to do the right thing, but then Ruben decided not to make good choices. Stealing the pouch was the first out of many bad choices Ruben makes throughout the book.

  • 3. The last turning point in the book is when Ruben gets offered a position on the Black Duck, which is a boat, which smuggles alcohol illegally during prohibition. Because Ruben was intrigued in learning more about the Black Duck he accepted the offer and went on the Black Duck the night of the big alcohol smuggling mission, even though he knew his life would be at risk.