John Rocco and Jay Primiano, Swim That Rock (Candlewick, 2014)
Swim That Rock focuses largely on the most notable feature of Rhode Island’s geography: its coastline (which, as I mentioned in my state preview, covers almost 400 miles in a state less than 40 miles wide). And it dwells in loving detail on one of the human activities that has taken place there for untold generations: quahogging, or fishing for the hard-shell molluscs that abundantly populate Narragansett Bay.
This is not an activity that I would normally expect to capture my interest; I don’t even like clams, for heaven’s sake. But authors John Rocco and Jay Primiano write so fervently and engagingly that I couldn’t stop reading. It helps that they have created a central character who is easy to like: fourteen-year-old Jake Cole, who can’t accept the death of his father at sea or the possibility that loan sharks will repossess the family diner and force him and his mom to move to Arizona. He takes to the water, determined to do something to save the way of life he loves, in the only way he knows: by fishing as hard as he can.
Encounters with shady characters provide excitement and local color, but it’s Jake’s elemental striving to wrest sustenance from the depths of nature, his quest to push himself beyond physical and mental limits, that is the real heart of the story. The authors (who grew up in a town very like Jake’s and are experienced quahoggers themselves) succeed in making us feel that we too have grappled with bullrakes and recalcitrant engines, with blisters and exhaustion and the need to pack in just one more load.
While the setting is brought to life with vivid immediacy, the character development is not quite so successful. There is an intriguing but rather perfunctory love interest for Jake, who I wish had gotten to tell more of her own story, and a father figure who is conveniently sidelined so that Jake can be on his own. Jake’s mom and best friend also remain somewhat shadowy, cardboard characters.
There’s still plenty of narrative drive and energy from the scenes on the water, though, and plenty of reasons to enjoy this fast-moving but emotionally satisfying story of adventure. If you’d like to experience something of what it means to grow up in Rhode Island, among the fishermen and women who are so much a part of its history and identity, do give it a try.