Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi



Bacigalupi, Paolo. Ship Breaker. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. ISBN 9780316056212

Plot Summary

Nailer works light crew on Bright Sands Beach collecting copper wire for pay and tries desperately to avoid the wrath of his abusive, addict father. After a huge storm destroy much of the beach, Nailer and his crew chief, Pima, find a wrecked Clipper ship with a treasure trove of light scavenge materials they could get rich from. They also find a rich girl clinging to life. They decide to save her based on the notion that she could give them great wealth if they help her get back to her family. From there, Nailer and Pima set out to find the girl, Nita’s, family, but they must keep her away from Nailer’s father who wants to sell her to her father’s enemy. Fast-paced action and a high seas battle ensue while Nita and Nailer try to decide who they can trust and Nailer must decide if the promise of wealth is worth the trouble.

Critical Analysis

From the very beginning of the book, the reader is intrigued by Nailer’s character and grows more fond of him as the pages turn. He is a smart, hard-working, thoughtful young man who refuses to accept the “me-first”, cut-throat mentality of his business and the post-apocalyptic American Gulf Coast. He looks out for others and strives to see the best in people. Nailer is not without his temptations and urgings to grasp at the opportunity for wealth at the expense of others, but ultimately, he chooses to help those he could easily overlook or even bring harm to. Nailer even chooses to give his abusive, maniacal father a second chance and help him when a storm is about to kill him. In the end though, Nailer doesn’t give his father a third chance and chooses to preserve his own life and that of countless others by putting and end to his father’s violence once and for all. Pima, Sadna, Nita, and Tool are equally likable and complex characters. Bacigalupi has created a cast of characters who endear themselves to the reader quickly, but who are also not perfect. It is in those imperfections that readers may find similarities to themselves or people they know and it is that element that allows the reader to invest herself in the lives of the characters and pull for their success in their endeavours. The author also does a masterful job of crafting the bad guys in such a way that the reader has no trouble rooting against them.

The plot of the story is completely plausible within the world Bacigalupi has created. The reader is taken along with Nailer and Nita on their quest to find the crews loyal to her father and the adventure and turmoil that ensues is action packed and keeps the reader entertained.  There are several setbacks to the original plan of helping Nita get back to her father. Nailer’s father has Nita, Nailer, and Pima under a guard after she is first rescued, then Nailer and Nita escape and make their way by train, with Tool, to the Orleans where they intend to wait on a ship. Nita believes she will recognize one of her father’s loyal ships and just when she does, Nailer’s father shows up and ends up kidnapping Nita again. Nailer must then partner with the captain of the ship Nita saw to venture off and try to get Nita back. Nailer and Nita are able to overcome all these obstacles and best their foe.

At the beginning of the book, Bacigalupi gives readers hints as to the location of the book, making reference to “the Orleans” and talking about how the land area used to be larger. These clues make the reader think the book is set in what is now New Orleans, but the character’s use of Chinese money makes the reader question whether it is indeed set in a real place or not. Further on in the story, as Bacigalupi weaves in information about the history of his imagined location, it becomes clear to the reader that the novel is set in the Gulf Coast region of the United States, but years after a huge “city killer” storm that has created the “drowned cities” by covering coastal towns with water. On a smaller scale, Bacigalupi describes the places in the story in vivid detail. The reader can easily imagine himself on the deck of an abandoned oil tanker on Bright Sands Beach, stripping copper wire right along with the light crew or hiding from Nailer’s father under the dock in the Orleans when he comes to reclaim Nita near the end of the book.

Residents of Bright Sands Beach and this new Gulf Coast region are mostly poor and destitute, carrying work debts to their crew boss for the privilege of working. Thus, they are always looking to find a “lucky strike” and get enough money to pay off their debts and buy their way off of crew and into a better position in life. Several times throughout the book, characters are given the chance to make a quick lucky strike, but it is always at the expense of someone else. One set of characters takes advantage of this opportunity and grabs the riches, while another set of characters which includes Nailer, Nita, Pima, her mother, Sadna, and Tool, the half-man, chooses to stick by their friends and value relationships and human lives over the possibility of riches. These two groups of characters become embroiled in a good versus evil battle over Nita, the girl who Nailer and Pima find amongst the wreckage of a clipper ship. Nita’s father owns one of the largest shipping companies and some of his men have turned on him. Nailer and his compatriots side with Nita, seeking out employees who are still loyal to her father. Nailer’s father and his cronies team up with the subversive members of the shipping company. In the end, good wins out over evil and while the reader certainly hopes this will be the case, and has a feeling it will all work out in the end, Bacigalupi sidesteps a formulaic victory by putting plenty of obstacles in the way of the resolution. After Nailer and Nita’s journey across the coast to find some of those loyal ship crews, after Nita’s kidnapping by Nailer’s father, and after a battle between ships and their crews, Nailer finally triumphs over his father, gets Nita back from him, and can begin a new chapter in his life.

Bacigalupi presents his new world in a consistently dark, oppressive manner. All the descriptions of the conditions and lifestyles paint a picture of poor people working dangerous and tenuous jobs for meager wages. A new vernacular has been created for this new world as well. The characters talk about “sliding high”, praying to “the Fates”, “licebiters”, “crewing up”, and “getting scavenge”. Some of these phrases are just different ways to refer to actual concepts, but some of the phrases refer to concepts that are original to this new place in Nailer’s world.

This action-packed dystopian novel keeps the reader on the hook until the final page. The character development is superb and really makes the story stand out among others of its kind.

Review Excerpts

National Book Awards


Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books

( WON AWARD in 2010 )

Michael L. Printz Award

( WON AWARD in 2011 )

American Library Association Notable Books for Children

( WON AWARD in 2011 )

Louisiana Young Readers’ Choice Award


Black-Eyed Susan Book Award


Locus Awards

( WON AWARD in 2011 )

Maryland Children’s Book Award


Young Reader’s Choice Award


Great Lakes’ Great Books Award


Evergreen Young Adult Book Award


Volunteer State Book Award


“As Nailer and Lucky Girl escape toward the drowned ruins of New Orleans, they witness rampant class disparity on individual and international levels (tribes whose lands were flooded have taken to the seas as pirates, attacking multinational shipping firms). Bacigalupi’s cast is ethnically and morally diverse, and the book’s message never overshadows the storytelling, action-packed pacing, or intricate world-building. At its core, the novel is an exploration of Nailer’s discovery of the nature of the world around him and his ability to transcend that world’s expectations” — Publisher’s Weekly, April 2010

“A fast-paced postapocalyptic adventure set on the American Gulf Coast. Nailer works light crew; his dirty, dangerous job is to crawl deep into the wrecks of the ancient oil tankers that line the beach, scavenging copper wire and turning it over to his crew boss…Exciting and sometimes violent, this book will appeal to older fans of Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies” series (S & S) and similar action-oriented science fiction.” — School Library Journal, June 2010

“*Starred Review* This YA debut by Bacigalupi, a rising star in adult science fiction, presents a dystopian future like so many YA sf novels. What is uncommon, though, is that although Bacigalupi’s future earth is brilliantly imagined and its genesis anchored in contemporary issues, it is secondary to the memorable characters…Clearly respecting his audience, Bacigalupi skillfully integrates his world building into the compelling narrative, threading the backstory into the pulsing action. The characters are layered and complex, and their almost unthinkable actions and choices seem totally credible. Vivid, brutal, and thematically rich, this captivating title is sure to win teen fans for the award-winning Bacigalupi.” — Booklist, May 2010


Read the companion novel by Bacigalupi:

  • The Drowned Cities, ISBN 9780316056229

Read other novels by Paolo Bacigalupi:

  • Pump Six and Other Stories, ISBN 9781597802024
  • The Windup Girl, ISBN 9781597801584
  • The Doubt Factory, ISBN 9780316220750
  • The Water Knife: A Novel, ISBN 9780385352871

Compare the Gulf Coast terrain in the novel to that of the current Gulf Coast.

Discuss whether or not it would be possible for a “city killer” (hurricane) to completely destroy New Orleans like it suggests in the book. Find news articles from 2003 regarding Hurricane Katrina and the levy and discuss how close we may have already come to this.

For older grades, discuss the economics and international business aspects of the shipping companies.

Have students gather in groups and discuss the book:

  • Do you think Nailer and Pima made the right choice in saving Nita?
  • Why do you think Nailer’s father is so bad now when he used to be different?
  • The half-men in the book were specifically engineered and bred to be warriors and protectors. If you could genetically engineer a being, what would be important?
  • Would you have chosen to leave with Nita as Nailer did? Why or why not?

Image from, accessed April 14, 2015. Cover art copyright 2010 by Little, Brown and Company, Design by David Caplan.


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