Sometimes you should absolutely judge a book by its cover. One of my favorite books of all time, Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, is a book I must have picked up at the bookstore about twenty times, drawn to its cover image of a lone figure on a beach, before I ever bought the darn thing and began to read it. Covers can make or break you, and when faced with an overwhelming amount of material and a finite amount of time, sometimes snap judgments must be made, and yes, you must judge a book by its cover. And then there are times when you really, really shouldn’t. Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Death-Defying Pepper Roux is most certainly one of those times.
I didn’t pick up Pepper Roux when it was initially released. I was working at the bookstore then, and passed by the book many times. The cover offered me an idea of swashbuckling adventures on the high seas, and that just wasn’t something in which I was willing to invest my time. Fast forward to the end of 2010, when I start to see this title on people’s lists of favorites for the year. I start to think, perhaps there is more than meets the eye, and so when it became available, I snatched up the library’s copy and took it home to enjoy.
I won’t keep anyone in suspense. I loved it, loved every bit of it. I loved it like I love Dickens, and that’s saying something. And in fact, The Death-Defying Pepper Roux is quite Dickensian in its own way, telling a sprawling tale full of colorful characters, centered around a young man called Pepper (and often many other names) who has been told by his meddlesome Aunty that he will be and should be dead at the age of fourteen. This information came to Aunt Mireille in a dream before his birth, the death pronouncement made by Saint Constance (who has excellent diction, by the way). This is why, on his fourteenth birthday, Pepper commits the terrible sin of surviving another day and runs off with his seafaring father’s jacket, commandeers his ship and makes for the high seas.
Here, it would seem, was the swashbuckling I was dreading, but I found none of it on the page. Instead, Pepper is a quiet captain, living under his father’s drunken reputation, and keeps mostly to his cabin, interacting only with the ship’s steward, a cross-dressing man called Duchesse. In fact, Pepper’s high seas adventure does not last long at all, and almost before I knew it, Pepper was busy disappearing into someone else’s life, escaping the wrath of saints and angels alike by continuing to live. Pepper becomes a meat slicer at a delicatessen, a newspaper writer, a telegraph delivery boy, even the deceased husband of a penniless widow. He makes friends and enemies with his peculiar ways and continues to evade the heavenly hoards he just knows are hot on his trail, ready to take him in.
I found so much to love in Pepper Roux; it’s hard to know where to start. I loved Pepper, for one thing. He grows from a single-minded child to a complex human with an incredible heart, an increasing penchant for lying and a natural tendency towards goodness. Not to mention a hell of a survival instinct. I loved Duchesse, especially when the character returns for the novel’s final act. I loved his “dear hearts” and his brute kindness. I pictured him a giant of a man perfect for squeezing like a teddy bear. And I loved the humor of it all. Pepper’s naiveté made for some easy laughs, for sure, but some expertly made sentences were just as enjoyable. Sentences like, “It voided a pellet of undigested mouse parts: its own little explanation of what it had been up to lately” made me laugh out loud, often without really knowing why. That’s the Dickens in it again. Little moments of humane hilarity that tickle the funny bone without so much as lifting a finger to do so.
I’m dreadfully sorry I judged Pepper Roux by its cover in the beginning. I’d like to say I’ve learned my lesson, but if I didn’t learn it with The True Meaning of Smekday, I’m unlikely to have learned it now, either. But I am truly grateful to have been turned on to Pepper Roux and I look forward to being able to press this book into just the right child’s hands and say, “You have to read this.”
One last note on the cover: it has grown on me, but I’ve since discovered the originally UK cover, and much prefer it.
The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean
2010, Harper Collins
2010, Harper Collins