Sunday, February 7, 2010

Review of The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

McCaughrean, Geraldine. The Death-Defying Pepper Roux. Harper, 2010.

When he was born, Pepper Roux's aunt had a visitation from Saint Constance, who said Pepper wouldn't live past 14 years of age. For some reason, everyone decided to take this pronouncement as the gospel truth, and as a result Pepper has lived his first 14 years with death hanging over him, ready to pounce at every moment.

Small wonder, then, that Pepper decides, when the opportunity presents itself, to walk away from his own life into that of his father's, the captain of a merchant ship. Strangely, no one questions the appearance of a suddenly diminutive, baby-faced captain with his coat hanging off him - and thus begins Pepper's odd life as a chameleon, taking off and then shedding identities in order to cheat the fates out of his death. What allows him to do this is not only his ability to breezily step into any role but also the fact that people see what they expect to see. The one person that Pepper doesn't fool is his father's steward, a man whose sense of responsibility toward Pepper, not to mention his common sense, finally shakes the smell of imminent death out of Pepper's nose.

This story has a setting - France - but it doesn't have a sense of time. Clearly it isn't the modern day - there are no cell phones or computers, and the merchant ship is from a bygone area. But cars are mentioned, and motorcycles, so perhaps it's safe to assume that Pepper lives in the early 20th century. What Pepper's France reminds me of is the not-quite-real fantasy world of Moulin Rouge, an off-kilter place that is part medieval, part 19th century, and a very tiny part now, where folks seem at once modern and archaic.

Partly because of this, partly because of Pepper's constant bouncing from one unpaid "job" to another, and partly because of the jouncing, clever, slightly unsettling narrative style, I never quite became immersed in this book. It won my mind but not my heart - except for the steward Achille Duchesse, whose penchant for extravagant attire and loving soul make him a vivid and lovable character, no one seemed real. And let's face it, even Duchesse wouldn't get away with wearing a kimono or a red satin dress on board ship as he does in this book. The bizarre satirical quality that permeates the story distanced me from the characters, so that in the end, I was vaguely happy for the eventual good fortune of Pepper but not at all sad to leave him behind.

I'd happily recommend this to folks who want a fast-moving tall tale of a gutsy lad surviving on his own - it's just that it didn't grab me in quite the right way. For grades 5 - 8.


  1. Fun review, but the real reason I need to find this book is that my name is Constance. Too often the characters with my name are bad hats!

  2. And in this book she's a saint!

  3. i think that the review is amazing,i read the book and i actually recommend it to 12 and above