Note: To read more about tales of winter, check out my original Story Warren post here.
What child doesn’t love pirates? During my youth in south Florida, I used to wander the beach with parents, picking over driftwood, chasing sandpipers and looking for Skull Rock. No mere mental homage to J.M. Barrie, Skull Rock was a real slab of stone that the tides would sometimes uncover, one I became convinced was where Peter Pan locked blades with dastardly Captain Hook. A youthful fancy fueled by the romance of salt water’s sting and the promise of loot secreted beneath the sands. In his picture book The Pirate Cruncher, Jonny Duddle captures perfectly these piratical accoutrements — and adds a twist ending containing a sobering moral.
No pirate strikes fear into the hearts of lily-livered landlubbers quite like Captain Purplebeard of Pendow. With a pair of peg legs, a rarely sheathed saber and aggressively bristling facial hair, he’s a fearsome sight indeed. But that doesn’t dissuade the mysterious fiddler who wanders into the Thirsty Parrot Inn one night from seeking out Purplebeard and telling him an intriguing tale. During his travels, it seems that this fiddler came upon an eye-popping horde of loot. “As I sailed the seas, I scribbled a map / So that when I got home I could find my way back. / Ye cannot imagine the booty that’s there— / A huge haul of treasure beyond compare!” he chants. Inflamed with greed, Purplebeard demands that the fiddler take him there. The fiddler readily agrees, yet offers a warning: Some say that a terrible monster guards this treasure, waiting to crunch any pirates who might venture by.
The Pirate Cruncher is a book that begs for multiple readings. Duddle’s art style fairly pops off the page. A red sunset stains clippers moored in a harbor. Waves leap and lash a floundering boat. Purplebeard and his crew appear both cartoonishly menacing and bumblingly clueless. Then there’s the fiddler’s odd carriage and the slimy, grasping tentacles that always seem to crawl around the pages’ borders. Does it surprise anyone that the monster exists or that the whole expedition ends poorly? It shouldn’t, least of all Purplebeard himself. The fiddler repeatedly warns him in rhyming verse, singing, “If you’re too scared, you can turn back to port, / While you’re still healthy, save for scurvy and warts. / It would be safer by far to return to the shore, / And as for the treasure, do you really need more?” The crew almost gives in, but the captain curtly cows then, scoffing, “Any cowardly landlubbers will be tossed in the sea. / The only thing you should be scared of is me!” That’s not quite true, and while the monster surprises, the real shock comes on the final page when the fiddler’s true nature appears. It’s a revelation hinted at as far back as the book’s flyleaf, a secret hidden in plain sight throughout Cruncher’s pages — but one easily overlooked by greed-blinded eyes.
(Picture: Copyright 2009 by Jonny Duddle; used under Fair Use)