When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man - Nick Dybek

Every fall, the men of Loyalty Island—like their fathers and grandfathers before them—still sail from the Olympic Peninsula up to the Bering Sea to spend the winter catching king crab. Their dangerous occupation keeps food on the table but constantly threatens to leave empty seats around it. To Cal, Alaska remains as mythical and mysterious as Treasure Island, and the stories his father returns with are as mesmerizing as those he once invented about Captain Flint before he turned pirate. But while Cal is too young to accompany his father, he is old enough to know that everything depends on the fate of those few boats thousands of miles to the north. He is also old enough to feel the tension between his parents over whether he will follow in his father’s footsteps. And old enough to wonder about his mother’s relationship with John Gaunt, owner of the fleet.

Then Gaunt dies suddenly, leaving the business in the hands of his son, who seems intent on selling away the fishermen’s livelihood. Soon Cal stumbles on evidence that his father may have taken extreme measures to salvage their way of life. As winter comes on, his suspicions deepening and his moral compass shattered, he is forced to make a terrible choice.




Cal has been born and raised in the small fishing community of Loyalty Island, Washington (state) in the Olympic Peninsula. His father is a crab fisherman who spends much of each year out on the Bering Sea. When home, Cal's father, Henry -- when Cal was little -- would read him the story of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. When they knew that story backwards and forwards, Henry started crafting his own stories of the pirate from the story, Captain Flint, thinking up his life pre-pirate days when maybe he might have been a good guy. These stories, the seaport village atmosphere, a tight-knit community... all wove together to craft Cal a childhood that seemed to be made of magic. At least until he hit his teens and the sparkly veneer began to crack, showing the painful reality of things underneath. 


I thought I needed the person who had left, and, of course, that wasn't very fair to the person who'd stayed. 


Everything Cal knows of life comes crashing down with the death of John Gaunt, the man whose family practically built Loyalty Island. John owned not only all the boats in the fleet that every fisherman in town worked from, but also all the tools and netting on the boats, the cold storage building and the cannery. What freaks everyone out is John's decision to leave his entire estate and fortune, which includes everything tied into the fishing company, to his mostly absentee son, Richard. When rumors get around that Richard might be getting ready to sell off the whole company to Japanese buyers, Cal begins to suspect that some of the locals, his father included, might be willing to go to ANY lengths to keep their way of life. 


There's also the mystery of what exactly was going on between John Gaunt and Cal's mother whenever Henry was out of town. As Cal's family structure rapidly begins to crumble and he's forced to watch his way of life threatened, he clings to his friendship with school mate Jamie as a lifeline to what feels like the last vestige of his childhood. But even this relationship is tested as more and more community secrets come forth. 


....The problem wasn't that she hadn't chosen; the problem was that she'd had no idea what she was choosing. The problem was that choice was a cruel illusion.


God, I loved the writing in this book! One of my favorite reads of this month, this was one I just wanted to read slow and savor the environment. I loved Dybek's ability to build intense, nearly tactile atmosphere around the novel's events. I could feel the weather and the salt air, smell the fireplaces and coffeepots brewing. Even more impressive knowing that this is a debut novel from this author! 


I found the characters incredibly well developed and I could easily picture every nuanced facial expression from everyone. There were also some passages of text that just floored me in the simple beauty of the writing. 


When I was still too young to know better, I'd told my father that I missed him when he was away. He'd picked me up and put me on his lap. "You know," he said, "if you ever need to reach me, it's possible. It's not easy, but it's possible." He tore a strip from an envelope and wrote out the number of the Pacific Cannery in Dutch Harbor. "They can get me on the radio," he said. "It might take a while but I'll get to you." We pasted it next to the phone in the kitchen, and, even as the tape yellowed and the blue ink faded, the number remained as a reminder that gone didn't mean gone, it just meant somewhere else.


Judging from the reviews I've seen, that's not everyone's reaction to this book. Guess you just have to get in there and try it for yourself and see what you think. I would certainly recommend it if you have a love of stories that center around modern(ish) life at sea or seaport communities. Dybek also weaves in a good dose of mystery to keep the readers entertained and wondering, so the whole book is not resting on atmosphere and environment building alone. 


The only knocks I can really think to give it: 1) there were just a few brief passages where the pace slowed a bit and not much was going on and 2) there's a story involving one of the characters and bald eagle hunting that disturbed me. 


This book was published a few years back in 2012 and I can't seem to find anything else published by Dybek since so I can only hope for more from him in the future!