John Leonard Pielmeier: Hook’s Tale

A rollicking debut novel from award-winning playwright and screenwriter John Pielmeier reimagines the childhood of the much maligned Captain Hook: his quest for buried treasure, his friendship with Peter Pan, and the story behind the swashbuckling world of Neverland.

Long defamed as a vicious pirate, Captain James Cook (a.k.a Hook) was in fact a dazzling wordsmith who left behind a vibrant, wildly entertaining, and entirely truthful memoir. His chronicle offers a counter narrative to the works of J.M. Barrie, a “dour Scotsman” whose spurious accounts got it all wrong. Now, award-winning playwright John Pielmeier is proud to present this crucial historic artifact in its entirety for the first time.

Cook’s story begins in London, where he lives with his widowed mother. At thirteen, he runs away from home, but is kidnapped and pressed into naval service as an unlikely cabin boy. Soon he discovers a treasure map that leads to a mysterious archipelago called the “Never-Isles” from which there appears to be no escape. In the course of his adventures he meets the pirates Smee and Starkey, falls in love with the enchanting Tiger Lily, adopts an oddly affectionate crocodile, and befriends a charming boy named Peter—who teaches him to fly. He battles monsters, fights in mutinies, swims with mermaids, and eventually learns both the sad and terrible tale of his mother’s life and the true story of his father’s disappearance.

Like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, Hook’s Tale offers a radical new version of a classic story, bringing readers into a much richer, darker, and enchanting version of Neverland than ever before. The characters that our hero meets—including the terrible Doctor Uriah Slinque and a little girl named Wendy—lead him to the most difficult decision of his life: whether to submit to the temptation of eternal youth, or to embrace the responsibilities of maturity and the inevitability of his own mortality. His choice, like his story, is not what you might expect.

I’ve been hanging on to this one for a little while, because I received it in the mail right around the same time I reviewed Christina Henry’s Lost Boy. They were so similar in subject I could not read them one right after another–I made that mistake with Sleeping Giants (after Peter Clines The Fold), and everyone loved that book but me!

Hook’s Tale tells the infamous story of Captain James Cook, and how he came to know Peter Pan–their friendship, and how it deteriorated into mistrust and betrayal. The more I read these retellings, the more I wonder how Disney came up with their version–as I still haven’t read the original from Barrie–because the retellings are just so dark! Not at all the twinkling fairy dust I grew up with! Hook’s Tale isn’t quite as gory as Lost Boy, and there is certainly much less psychological damage, but it’s definitely no children’s movie.

This book also reads much closer to what I would imagine the original book’s narration sounds like, if I had to hazard a guess. Unfortunately, that does make it suffer in some areas. The narrator tries to put down Barrie’s description of the Piccaninnies as a “red” race, to make him seem racist. However, Tiger Lily’s story is riddled with microaggressions:  using food to describe skin color, negative connotations around ceremonies such as sacrifices and cannibalism, the whole sense that the Great Panther’s tribe is considered “other.” Also, women were constantly put down as prostitutes, drug addicts, adultresses. It is difficult to tell if these issues were supposed to be “historical context” or authorial bias.

It’s impossible not to compare Lost Boy and Hook’s Tale, even though they are completely different books–they still share common subjects and themes. Still, I think even if I had read only Hook’s Tale, there were just too many harmful descriptors used to make this a truly great story. It had flow, and I was interested in it, but I’m disappointed in how the author wrote about marginalized people.

Scribner provided a copy of this book for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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