I was perplexed to to teach this book to a grade 11 class during my student teaching placement for a few reasons: first, I never read or heard about this book until now and second, it oddly sounds parallel to Hemingway’s timeless classic Old man and the Sea. Published in 2006, Young Man and the Sea is pretty recent to be considered classic. Rodman Philbrick is an American author known for a number of well received young adult novels published in the past few years.
Living in a small fishing community in Maine, twelve year old Skiff is faced with a number of problems: His mother recently passed away, his father subsequently drifted into alcoholis and the cruel relentless bully, Tyler Croft pursuing him. On the top of that, he has just learned that his boat Mary Rose has been sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Unable to get help from his useless father, Skiff finds an ally in Mr Woodwell, an elderly and retired boatbuilder. With his help, Skiff succeeds in raising the boat, only to learn that he needs 5000 dollars to repair the motor. The only way to get that money for him is to get out in the ocean and single-handedly catch a bluefin tuna for Mr. Nagahachi, a fish marketer from Japan.
Just like the title that pays homage to the famous novella, the plot and character setting of Young Man and the Sea are far from original. For the few few lessons I distributed a summary for each of YMAS and OMAS and have the students compare and contrast the two, and they came up with a plenty of details: both of Skiff and Santiago have a friend with a great age difference (Mr. Woodwell/Manolin), they are both luckless and struggling to catch a big fish beyond their abilities(bluefin tuna/marlin). The main difference is that Skiff did not lose his reward to a pack of sharks.
Here’s a brief example of Philbrick modelling Hemingway:
Birds, I’m thinking. I need birds. Birds is how you can find fish. When fish make a commotion feeding on the surface, birds will circle over and dive. You can see the birds from a long way off and know where the fish are. (Philbrick, p.125)
Just then he saw a man-of-war bird with his long black wings circling in the sky ahead of him. He made a quick drop, slanting down on his black-swept wings, and then circled again. (Hemingway, p.36)
Skiff is a typical motherless and precocious young hero in modern parables. Skiff reminds me of Pi in Life of Pi who shares same way of dealing with the ocean and coping with loneliness. Skiff is also comparable to Billy in Billy Elliot in their dealings with loss of mother and desire to succeed. Despite all of these, I uncritically followed my AT’s choice of October Sky whose mechanical themes of shooting rockets weren’t really close to my heart…
It’s a nice, entertaining read for high schoolers, but I personally prefer much more thought-provoking and political novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird or Fahrenheit 451 for classroom. If I want to have the students read silently for the most of the unit, I would probably choose this.