Paperback, 144 pages
Published November 5th 2015 by Walker Books
From the internationally bestselling author of The Books of Pellinor comes a powerful story about the exploitation of indigenous people by the First World. In Simbala’s village they have two treasures: the River, which is their road and their god; and the Book, which is their history, their oracle and their soul. Simbala is a Keeper of the Book, the latest in a long line of women who can use it to find answers to the villagers’ questions. As developers begin to poison the River on which the villagers rely, the Book predicts change. But this does not come in the form that they expect; it is the sympathetic Westerner that comes to the village who inflicts the greatest damage of all.
In our village we had two treasures: the River which was our road and our god; and the Book, which our history, our oracle and our soul.
The River and the Book by Alison Croggon could have been justifiably mired in bitterness; it could have told a story of how people are beaten down by those with more power and stripped not only off their livelihood but also their culture. Instead, it tells, with infinite delicacy and sensitivity, a story of hope and dignity. As the synopsis says, Simbala grows up in a village by a River. She is trained by her mother, as her mother was trained by hers and so on, to read the Book which holds the answers to all the questions they may ever have. The villagers consult Simbala, her mother, or her grandmother who then ask the questions and read the answers provided. Apart from them, no one else is able to read the script in the book.
Then the River begins to die; its waters retreat every season and news filters down from upriver about immense cotton farms that are killing the river with irrigation and chemical dumping. There is nothing Simbala and her people can do except shelter the refugees who flee from those who seek to take their land and river. A woman, Jane Watson, comes to Simbala’s village under the guise of studying their customs, steals the Book and leaves.
When I lost the Book, I lost my people, my place and the meaning of my name. I lost the picture that lived in its pages somewhere of my mother showing me its mysteries for the first time, and I lost the voice that led me through my doubts and fears and showed me the path forward. I lost my past and my future. I lost everything that told me who I was. And I lost my place in the village. If I was not the Keeper, who was I?
Simbala, at a loss now about the direction her life is going to take, decides that she has no choice but to retrieve the book so she disguises herself as a boy and sets off down the river on an old shanty she inherited from her mother.
The book is a slim one and yet manages to encompass Simbala’s journey beautifully. As she comes to terms with her loss and her hope of finding her book keeps on waning, she finds herself in a city among different kinds of people. She finds a group of friends and more and learns more about her inner self and the relationship she has to the world around her.
The River and the Book reveals the hypocrisy people of the First World; those who speak of preserving indigenous cultures while exploiting it for their own use or knowledge. The objectification of indigeous people has been written about by a lot of people in academic context. The River and the Book functions as a vehicle to present the issues in a more relatable manner so that younger children can understand the complex issues better.
I recommend this book for teachers who wish to teach their students about the deeper issues of exploitation and disparate power among people. I recommend this book also for people looking for an unforgettable tale about a strong woman who takes what courage she has and forges a path of her own, meeting different people and learning to think beyond her horizons. Strongly recommended.