Guest Review: Journey to the River-Sea by Eva Ibbotson
Eva Ibbotson was an Austrian-born British writer. My first introduction to her was Journey to the River-Sea, and her later books, though still pretty good, could never match up to the magic and charm of the first, a book I still re-read today and enjoy as much.
Orphans form a large part of Ibbotson’s stories, which are usually set in the turn of the century England or Vienna. Journey to the River-Sea however is set in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazonian forest in Brazil. It is a different time and a different world. Electricity and the telegraph have already been discovered, but there are still many discoveries to be made and expeditions to be conducted in far-flung, exotic places, where the locals are still referred to as savages.
Ibbotson has crafted a wonderfully simple but heart-warming story. It’s 1910 and the English orphan Maia Fielding is very excited to be sent, along with governess, Miss Minton, to live with distant relatives (The Carters) who own a rubber plantation near Manaus. Maia is friendly, talented, intelligent and a dreamer with a vivid imagination. She concocts the various adventures she might have with her new family and her two cousins amongst the bright wildlife of the Amazon. Little does she know that her aunt and uncle are horrible, her cousins even worse with their xenophobia, their desire to have no contact with the polluting non-English world and their fear of the natives leading them to shut themselves off and pretend that they still live in England.
There isn’t a moral of the story, it doesn’t preach nor patronise.
And yet you’ll find yourself silently learning and imbibing lessons, whatever your age. This story makes you think, feel, introspect without you actually realising it. This increases the adventure quotient of the story, a story that makes you want to go off into the unknown and have an adventure of your own.
The setting itself is a separate, three-dimensional character. With the screeching howler monkeys, orchids, exotic fruits, flowers, plants and the humid climes that aid the untamed jungle. With the curious mix of natives and European/English immigrants and the varied, interacting and intersecting cultures and lives. Ibbotson writes about the richness and untapped potential of the Amazon, of the golden theatre of Manaus, of the rubber barons who,
...became so rich that they could wash their carriage horses in champagne… yet all the time the untamed jungle was on the doorstep, waiting to take over if they failed.
It’s a story about unwanted fates, about orphans trying to change their destinies.
At its very heart, it’s a simple story about a girl trying to find a place in the world where she belongs, and people who care about her. Maia makes for an engaging, precocious main character, trying to see the best in everyone, even her new family who make her life a living hell. She slowly learns to defy them (with the help of Miss Minton) and finds the adventures she was dreaming about when she first heard that she would be moving to Brazil.
As previously mentioned, the descriptions of the exotic setting are beautifully colourful and vibrant and there is an equally engaging set of supporting characters – Clovis, an actor with a travelling troupe in Manaus who Maia befriends, the mysterious Finn who has a secret past, the plain looking but resourceful, intelligent, fiercely loyal and direct Miss Minton who is reserved in her affecttion towards Maia at the start, but slowly shows us just how much she cares, Professor Neville Glastonbury, the naturalist from the Manaus museum, the kind Russian family, and others – that make the world of the story very believable, and one that we can be intensely immersed in, whatever our age.
Maybe it’s all neatly tied up in the end, maybe the coincidences are a bit too convenient – but it’s a YA book after all. One that has an unusually mature plot, that delights, makes you care, makes you feel and leaves you with a very satisfied, content feeling at the end of it, knowing that the characters you’ve developed a connection with find their happy endings. It’s a narrative that deserves to be made into a movie, even if just to remind us as Miss Minton (affectionately referred to as Minty later on) says –
...children must lead big lives … if it is in them to do so.
Anushree Nande has Creative Writing Bachelors and Masters from Edge Hill University. Born and brought up in Mumbai, India, she is an eternally optimistic and fiercely loyal Gooner Girl. She freelances for various magazines, blogs, literary websites on books, writing, football, film, TV and has had short stories and poems published. She is also a freelance editor and proofreader. Anushree is working on her first novel and her Facebook writing page can be found here.