Note: this has some spoilers
“I watched as the stars faded and the landscape began to materialize out of the night and become solid again, and the rim of the world grew rose-pink and deepened to orange and then split with molten gold, and the first rays of the sun speared the wide, empty plains.”
The River and The Book by Alison Croggon is another long-listed for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers 2016. Perhaps I should blog about this book by the shores of a river, at least I have a cat by my side. And there are spoilers here, cats always ruin things.
“What does a cat know about books?”
Quite a lot, when she’s not sleeping.
Simbi’s story is alive with the colours and scents and happiness of her life in the village by the River. Then she loses everything. First the lifeblood of the village, the River, begins to falter and dry up, not flooding anymore and lowering every year. As refugees arrive from upriver, they tell the villagers about the Water Wars causing the drought.
People from Tarn, a neighbouring country, settled on the Plains of Pembar on what they think is empty land to farm cotton. Their thirsty crop sucks up so much water, causing drought further down the river. When Pembar villagers try to stop this, the Tarnish settlers start killing villagers indiscriminately and the violence escalates.
Meanwhile Simbi’s mother dies and her daughter becomes the new Keeper of the Book, which holds her village’s cultural knowledge. Only the Keeper can translate the Book for the other villagers. Soon after Simbi becomes the Keeper, the Book is stolen by Jane Watson, an anthropologist visiting from Tarn. The villagers had welcomed her and feel betrayed by her deception.
Simbi feels the most guilt, she let Jane Watson see the book, and enjoyed her friendship when Jane visited the village. Her guilt leads Simbi on Jane’s trail to confront her and take back what she stole. In the city Simbi makes new friends, including Mely the cat (who only talks to select special people) and eventually finds Jane Watson. The confrontation isn’t quite what Simbi expects, Jane apologises and returns the book. She is now campaigning to save the dying River that feeds every village along its banks.
This is where the real life colonisation of indigenous people parallels with the world of The River and The Book. Jane Watson is the oppressor and supposed saviour of the villagers along the River. Simbi is torn between forgiveness and hatred, and argues with her friends about what she should feel and do.
“When I think of Jane Watson sitting in her cramped office, looking crushed and ashamed, I am almost certain I don’t hate her. When I think of the suffering she has caused me and the people I love, I am almost certain that I do.”
Over the hundreds of years we’ve been oppressing indigenous people it’s rarely the same individual who does both, but Jane Watson is a metaphor for our society. Does our current willingness to offer “help” to indigenous cultures make up for the damage we did in the past? Is this just another form of oppression? Does saying sorry achieve anything?
Just as Simbi wrestles with these questions, indigenous people the world over do too. Simbi finds there are no easy answers. The River and The Book cleverly ends with Simbi feeling hope for her future, but not yet sure what that future might hold. I hope this isn’t a setup for a sequel because it’s a perfect ending. The Change the Book predicted is still in progress, just as in real life our stories don’t end, but continue while we live, and continue for those living after.
The cover and chapter headings of the The River and The Book are beautifully illustrated by Katie Harnett. I remember her whimsical art from The Minnow and her style is perfect for this story. Seemingly simple, but with layers of meaning the more you look. On her tumblr you can see some of her initial designs. I love that Katie was inspired by weaving patterns, just as Simbi wove cloth before she left the village.
It was interesting reading The River and the Book after Freedom Ride. Like Simbi’s village, Indigenous Australians were dispossessed of their culture and their land and our apologies don’t change this past.
“They are caught between one world and another, and they no longer belong anywhere.”
Simbi feels this when she lives in the city, and thinks she can’t return to her village. By the end of her story, she realises she can belong in both places, remembering her cultural past, while living her current life. I hope many people read The River and the Book and consider its parallels with our reality.