Study Guide

Ship Breaker Family

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Family

Here, fear and tension fell away in the presence of Sadna's strength. (5.8)

Nailer doesn't really have a family. His mom is dead and his dad's a violent drug addict, so he tries to find the qualities of a family in Pima and her mother, Sadna. Family should imply safety, but Nailer only feels this kind of security with his non-family.

Silent stretched between them. "Lost it, huh?" was all his father said, but Nailer could tell that dangerous gears were turning now, fueled by the rattle of drugs and anger and whatever madness caused his father's bouts of frenzied work and brutality… Richard Lopez was thinking. And now Nailer needed to know what—or he'd never escape the shack without a beating. (5.144)

It's pretty clear that Nailer has to physically and mentally tiptoe around his dad because his dad is both physically and mentally abusive. This challenges the concept that family is important because, well, what if the only family you have doesn't give you what family should—safety, security, and love?

The man was a drunk and a bastard, but still, they were blood. They shared the same eyes, the same memories of his mother… family, as much as he had. (6.19)

What makes someone family? Is it blood? Shared experiences? Or something else?

"I don't know why you saved his ass," Pima said. "All he does is hit you."

Nailer shrugged…"He didn't used to. He used to be different. Before all the drugs and before my mom died."

"He wasn't that great before. He's just worse now."

Nailer grimaced. "Yeah, well…" He shrugged, stymied by conflicted emotions. "I probably wouldn't have made it out of the oil room if it weren't for him. He's the one who taught me to swim." (8.70-73)

This is the hard part for Nailer. His dad wasn't always a jerk—there are some good times that he remembers, too—so Nailer has to weigh who is dad was against who he is when he considers what he owes his father. That's some terrible math right there, Shmoopers.

People said family was important. Pearly said it. Pima's mom said it. Everyone said it. And Richard Lopez, whatever else he was, was the only family Nailer had left. (7.75)

In Ship Breaker, Nailer and other characters feel heavy social pressure to value family. Is it fair to ask Nailer to value family in the same way that Pima and Sadna do? Why or why not?

His pale eyes looked as bright and crazed as Nailer felt his own must be.

"I won't let you die, son. Don't you worry. We'll get you taken care of. You're my blood and I'll take good care of you." (12.119-120)

When Nailer's wound from the oil chamber gets infected, Richard takes care of his son. How is this at odds with what we know about Richard Lopez and his relationship with Nailer? And is Richard taking care of Nailer because Nailer is his son, or is it for some other reason?

"A good kill," he said. "As fast as your father."

"I'm not my father."

"Not as skilled." Tool shrugged. "But the potential is there…Blood tells. You have good potential."

Nailer shuddered at the thought of mirroring his father. "I'm not like him," he said again. (14.64-67)

Tool often serves as the philosopher of the novel, and here he talks about how blood "tells." Genes are important and can influence a person's life (which Tool knows well because he's a genetic mutant), but intentions also matter, especially when Nailer tries so hard not to be his father.

Tool studied him. "So. You bite like a mastiff and never let go. Just like your father, then." Nailer started to retort, but Tool waved him silent. "Don't argue the obvious. Lopez never let anything stand in his way, either." (19.79)

Even though Nailer wants to reject his ties to his father, Tool reminds him that even the worst parents can have good qualities. Nailer is tenacious and ambitious like his father, neither of which are necessarily bad qualities to have. It's what Nailer does with them that matters.

"Scientists created me from the genes of dogs and tigers and men and hyenas, but people always believe I am only their dog." Tool's eyes flicked to the captain, and his sharp teeth gleamed in a brief smile. "When the fighting comes, don't deny your slaughter nature. You are no more Richard Lopez than I am obedient hound. Blood is not destiny, no matter what others believe." (19.79)

Tool is making the point that we are more than where we come from. Nailer isn't his father—he exhibits compassion and empathy—just like Tool is more than what the scientists created him to be. We can rise above the lowly roots we have. (Bonus: Tie this to the theme of Society and Class.)

Nailer laughed. "My dad doesn't give anyone a chance for second thoughts. He cuts you first. He talks about family sticking together, but what he really means is that I give him money… Lucky Girl's more of a family than he is." (19.107)

When the captain asks why Nailer's setting up a conflict with his dad, Nailer tells him what family really means: Loyalty, trust, and having one another's back. And he hasn't gotten that with his father since his mother died, if ever.

The old-world wrecks still lay black on the sand like mangled bodies, still leaking oil and chemicals, still swarming with workers. But he wasn't one of them. And not Pima. And not Sadna, either. He wasn't able to save everybody, but he could at least save family. (25.38)

At the end of the novel, when Nailer watches the ship breakers work, we realize that he's come to some resolutions about what family means to him: Family is made, not born into. This is not necessarily true for Nita, but that has more to do with class differences. Definitions of family are personal for the characters in the book.

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