If we’re judging a book by its cover, then Daniel Handler’s We Are Pirates should be filled with swashbuckling adventure. Although set in modern-day San Francisco, you prepare to go on a journey with a teenage girl and a rag-tag group of strangers as they become actual pirates. Who wouldn’t want to leave their job or school for freedom on the water?
What readers get is a dark look at what happens when an adventurous spirit refuses to be grounded in reality. While the cover and the title itself may be misleading, this novel isn’t actually about pirates. Or people who become pirates. It’s about the dangers of going too far with your imagination. It’s about facing reality and how confining it can be for someone who longs for adventure.
Overview of We Are Pirates
In We Are Pirates, we meet the Needle family and spend a lot of time in the heads of father Phil Needle and daughter Gwen. While their journeys are very different, both feel trapped in their lives and want something more. They aren’t reliable narrators and their thoughts often drift from one subject to the next, as often happens in real life. As readers, we see the world through their eyes, not as it actually is.
It takes about five or six chapters in We Are Pirates before there’s any real mention of pirates or pirate stories. The story takes its time in allowing readers to get into the heads of the two main characters, which can be confusing and a bit jarring at times. After getting caught stealing from a drug store, Gwen is sent to volunteer as a companion at a senior living center as punishment.
The senior she is assigned to has a deep love of pirate stories and many of the classics. Treasure Island. Captain Blood. The Sea Wolf. As Gwen reads these, she learns more about pirates and how they stole, killed, and essentially did whatever they wanted. The more time she spends with her senior companion Errol, the more she wants to become a pirate herself.
Once the plan for Gwen and her companions to actually become pirates is in place, We Are Pirates picks up speed. The crew is made up of Gwen, her new friend Amber, Errol (who has dementia), an employee of the senior living center called Manny, and Cody, a member of Gwen’s swim team who joins the pirate crew by accident. It’s not exactly a recipe for success.
Phil Needle’s Story
While Phil Needle doesn’t go on any pirate adventures, he does dream of being an American outlaw, of sorts. As a radio producer, he has an idea for a life-changing show that shares real American stories. The ‘American something-or-other’. Unfortunately, he spends the entire novel trying to figure out a title for this show, and we never get one.
Each choice Phil Needle makes is done with the belief that the show will be a hit. So what if an actor is filling in for a long-dead musician to make an interview sound better? So what if the title isn’t finished? It’s a great idea that will revolutionize radio and set the Needle family on easy street.
Pirates and Outlaws
As Gwen’s plan of becoming a pirate goes from idea to reality, she actually ends up moving further away from reality. How far would you go to embody one of your fandoms? Would you steal a boat? How about steal from another boat? Could you kill someone?
Gwen’s story gets rather dark at times and shows both her determination to escape her life and to make choices without consequences. Would you know if you were in over your head? If you were, would you quit or keep going anyway?
For Phil Needle, he isn’t running away from his problems. He’s dreaming of his outlaw life. By being so focused on the future, to the success of his big idea, he isn’t actually present to his surroundings. During conversations with his family, his assistant, his colleagues, his mind wanders. A lot. He tends to live in his own world and doesn’t grasp reality when things don’t go the way he intended them to.
As one would expect from the author of the Unfortunate Events series, We Are Pirates is dark. Not just in terms of graphic violence, but in how the train of thought of these characters works. The writing style itself takes time to adjust to. The story jumps from one point of view to another, from daydreams to reality.
It’s hard to tell who is narrating the story at times. Yes, we jump from Phil Needle or Gwen’s perspective, but occasionally the writing switches to the third person. You need to pay attention to figure out who’s really talking here. The story is also presented as a history of sorts. Often the phrase, “At this point in American history,” is used to discuss present-day events.
It’s a unique writing style that is complex and impressive if confusing at times.
Frankly, from a story called We Are Pirates you’d expect more of the story to focus on the pirate adventure. While Handler does a great job getting in the heads of real, flawed characters, it may not be the story you expect. It’s less about a group of strangers going on pirate adventures and more of a character study.
It’s about people who have the pirate/outlaw spirit but are restricted to less adventurous lives. While the story summary may have been misleading, or simply vague, the writing style itself makes this story stand out. If you’re looking for a good examination of complex characters, with a bit of pirate adventure thrown in, give We Are Pirates a try. If you’re looking for a modern-day pirate story, you might want to keep looking.
This isn’t the book for you.