Don't Call Me Ishmael, by Michael Gerard Bauer introduces readers to Ishmael Leseur, a young boy entering year nine in school, a place where people and things more often than not remain the same. Ishmael's nemesis Barry Bagsley, the school bully, starts this year with brilliant repartee and typical bullish behavior. However, the entrance of new student James Scobie and an attractive new first year teacher Miss Tarango ("She actually seemed happy to be there.)," prove to be a much needed impetus for change.
Assigned to be the new student's buddy, Ishmael has a front row seat to James and his odd assertion that he has not fear. As class bully Barry taunts and provokes James, he responds calmly, never rising to the increasing provocation. His demeanor is noted by classmates, friend and foe alike, and when the idea of a school debate panel is broached, Ishmael, James, and a small group of unlikely students join together to make an interesting and diverse team. Throughout year nine, the boys somewhat begrudgingly become friends, sticking up for each other and learning while the opportunity to bully feels good for a time, it is not all it's cracked up to be.
Ishmael's narration and self deprecating humor, often laugh out loud funny, helps move the year along at a brisk pace. Adding to this is the division of the work into five distinct parts over the school year, each interestingly and appropriately introduced by a quote from Melville's Moby Dick. Bauer could have easily given in to the temptation to make James Scobie a caricature; the nerdy, brainy, new student who takes a stand against the school bully. What keeps this from happening is how comfortable this character is in his own skin. He is not trying to prove anything to the other students, he is living as he sees fit and that makes him an interesting and complex character. Though aware of the necessity of Scobie's abrupt departure from the book, other characters grew and developed their own potential, I was a disappointed at how he was in some ways reduced to being an afterthought. Overall an enjoyable read that just might prompt some to check out Ishmael's name sake.