Philip Roy’s Eco Warrior grips the reader from the beginning and holds us throughout. It is the seventh of his Submarine Outlaw series, but that doesn’t stop us from engaging completely with it as a distinct story. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know how I feel about series that just go on and on, without any obvious overarching narrative. While the Submarine Outlaw series is episodic, Roy is not demanding that we read the next book in order either to understand the message or (worse) to reach a dénouement. Eco Warrior drops us right into the action without dropping us in media res into Alfred’s story.
“A hundred years ago,” Alfred tells us, “I would be on my way to World War I. I’d have to lie about my age and say I was eighteen as a of of boys did … Now I’m on my way to a different kind of war … I’m not sure what the weapons are, or who my allies are, or even how to fight. I only know that I can learn. This is the war of my time, the war to save the planet” (1-2). After this short ideological introduction, we plunge right into the story. Alfred is travelling across the Indian ocean, but we do not immediately know (unless we have read the other books) that he is in fact travelling alone in a small, self-constructed submarine, with only his dog, Hollie, and a seagull, Seaweed, as crew. We learn this slowly, in the midst of a crisis as he is tossed overboard by a swell while trying to fix his rudder. In the matter of a few pages, we have already grown to like him—his intelligence, his curiosity, his attitudes—enough to be fully invested. Here’s the part about dropping us right in… The terror of being a lone sailor on a submarine, and falling off, hit home strongly. What saves Alfred is a firm understanding of nautical physics—knowledge that the author is obviously well versed in himself. Alfred’s success in extricating himself from this traumatic situation establishes a firm connection with the reader; we are ready to believe in Alfred’s ability to travel as he does, despite his age. This belief is enhanced by Alfred’s somewhat tentative thought processes: he understands how his age impacts many of the decisions he has to make, and works within the real constraints a seventeen-year-old boy might experience.
This social realism is one of the powers of the narrative, showing readers that they can contribute to the environmental cause despite not being radical activists themselves (although Alfred is well on his way to becoming one). In his travels to find the Sea Shepherd Society, Alfred meets a number of individuals who share a concern over the state of the oceans, and he is bombarded with a range of beliefs, from Margaret’s belief that “You can’t save the oceans now. It’s too late. Nobody can” (30), to the more destructive activities of Jewels “Brass-knuckles” Bennett, to Merwin’s analogy of ants at work: “each ant carries a tiny piece of earth,” but together they create an enormous anthill (130). Alfred does encounter the Sea Shepherd Society in their attempts to prevent oil tankers from fueling illegal whalers south of the 60th parallel. Despite his desire to help actively, Alfred knows that his tiny crew, in a tiny sub, can do little to fight against the huge tanker. Nonetheless, they assist the more able Sea Shepherd Society, as well as saving a whale calf whose mother had been slaughtered. This, Alfred knows, is meaningful and for the moment must be enough. The metaphor for the young adult reader is obvious and effective.
Alfred is a fighter, a strong individual who does not let his age get in the way of learning how he can contribute. This is a message that young readers today really need to hear. If the young do not stand up and fight for our world, our resources will continue to be depleted, our environment destroyed. Eco Warrior shows readers that every individual person’s choices can contribute positively to the battle against environmental destruction. “Are you alive?” Jewels asks Alfred (62). “Yes.” “Then it’s not too late.”