Book review

Raider by Susan Gates (1995)

Bit of a misleading cover on this book. There once was a trawler called the Arctic Raider with a demon captain who would think nothing of risking his crew's lives in dangerous seas. He would stay out hunting the fish long after other boats had run for the shelter of harbour. This way he and his crew made a fortune, and he made his reputation. 'Skipper of the Year 1952'. And on one such trip a new deckhand, sixteen years old, was lost overboard.

It's relevant, but it isn't what this book is about. This book is about two schoolgirls who come across the story of the drowned deckhand more than forty years later. Maddy and Flora, they don't like each other. Well, Maddy is much too cool to be seen dead with a lump like Flora. And Flora is a victim of mindless, low-level bullying at school. Not enough to really catch anyone's attention, but enough to make her life a misery. But the two girls have to work together on a history project in the run-up to Christmas. 'The Decline of the Local Fishing Industry 1950 - 1995'.

Just thinking of it made Maddy slump into a coma.

I think I know that feeling.

Maddy doesn't really realize it, at first, but she is a bit of a delicate flower. She's got her group of friends and buckets of self-confidence because she's always had her path smoothed for her by her parents. So when they have to leave her alone in the house for the weekend:

'I can't possibly come, can I? I've got this project to do ...'

they set her up with an interview with a local ex-fisherman. Reluctantly, she drags herself along and is confronted by the fisherman's wife who is the mother of the drowned deckhand all those years ago. Maddy is totally spooked. At the top of the house is a shrine to the dead boy.

By chance, Flora arrives at the same event by way of a different interview. She talks to a crewmember from the Arctic Raider. It takes Maddy and Flora a while to realize that their accounts of the death don't agree, and it is Flora who seizes on the mystery. She feels an affinity for the apparently useless deckhand and silently promises him that she will find out the true circumstances which surrounded his death. This is the beginning of a change in Flora's whole outlook on life which brings a full stop to the bullying and also makes her a new friend. Maddy, on the other hand, would rather go off Christmas shopping.

But Maddy does a bit of growing up during the course of this weekend too. She finds that there is more to Flora than simply being named after a brand of low-fat margarine. And although this new side of Flora is not exactly easy to deal with, it does demand a certain amount of respect:

' ... What's it matter whether some stupid kid fell overboard on Christmas Day or a week later? ... '
The kitchen chair clattered to the ground as Flora, in her pink teddy bear suit, lunged across the table. Maddy jerked back, already wincing at the blow: 'I w-w-was only joking!'
But Flora didn't hit her. Instead she yelled, eyes blazing, 'Just who the hell do you think you are! You haven't got a clue, have you? You haven't got a clue what it was like for Laurie on the Raider? Hiding all the time, scared to death, no one to protect him. They made his life hell, that's what Mr Walters said.'
Maddy circled the table ...
It was on the tip of Maddy's tongue to jeer, 'So what do you know about it, then?' But she didn't dare. She was, for once, tongue-tied, astonished at the violence, the savage resentment in Flora's words. Who'd have guessed that Flora could go berserk like that? Maddy giggled, just to break the tension.

It is to Maddy's credit, I think, that she decides to support Flora in her quest. For Maddy it is part of the process of learning how to deal with real people and real emotions all by herself, without her usual support network and safety harness:

And Maddy's response balanced on a knife edge. She was tempted to be outraged, make a scene, throw Flora out of the house.
But when she saw Flora slumped in her pink furry outfit, Maddy surprised herself by saying, 'Well, all right, then. If you're going to get so worked up about it, we'll go, then.'

It's a very tidy story. Concise and powerful. No loose ends. And no, you're right, it isn't anything to do with the decline of the local fishing industry 1950 -1995. They had to go back to the library and copy out a few pages for that. I enjoyed this book - the two girls are very real because of their inconsistent emotions and the way they seem to surprise themselves as much as anyone.

What can I read next?

Susan Gates has also written:

If you really enjoy solving a mystery you might like to look at this one by Roger J Green:

But if it is the school background that you enjoy, you could look at this one by Robert Swindells:

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