Eva Ibbotson Journey to the River Sea
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)
Eva Ibbotson, if still with us, would have been celebrating her 90th birthday this month, but sadly she died in 2010. Born in Vienna, she had to move to England in 1935 when Hitler came to power. That experience — of being uprooted — was drawn on directly for novels like The Morning Gift (about a girl from a secular Jewish family escaping Nazi Germany) and indirectly, I suspect, for Maia, the young protagonist of Journey to the River Sea. Who has not imagined what life might be like if one was an orphan forced from their familiar environment? Ibbotson experienced some of this, while the fictional Maia is a genuine orphan — not impecunious, it is true — who at the beginning of the 20th century has to travel away from her boarding school to live with distant relatives. On the banks of the Amazon.
When I was a kid growing up in the early 60s my mother had a collection of ethnographic travel books, many about the ‘lost worlds’ of the Amazon. They had titles like Exploration Fawcett or involved a quest for the mysterious city of El Dorado. They had photographs of naked forest-dwellers in dug-out canoes or by their huts staring at the camera. And, I suspect, they had that classic National Geographic paternalistic stance towards benighted natives paraded before civilised eyes. Earlier in the century, when empires were still carving out new territories for exploration (corporations do that now) locals were often regarded by Europeans as heathen, dirty, lazy cheats, both primitive and incorrigible. And that is the attitude that Maia discovers underpins her newfound relatives living near Manaus, a thousand miles upriver.
This is the Carter family: an unsuccessful rubber plantation owner so obsessed with his glass eye collection that he is blind to impending financial disaster; his vapid but overbearing wife focused only on sanitation; and their two children, twins Beatrice and Gwendolyn. (The latter made me wonder if Ibbotson borrowed the latter’s name from the equally objectionable Gwendolen in Diana Wynne Jones’ Charmed Life.) Maia briefly considers whether they will be like the two Ugly Sisters in Cinderella but then dismisses the thought when she first meets them. In fact this really is a Cinderella story, and while Ibbotson never labours the parallels that is the trope we inevitably have in the back of our minds. The two sisters are indeed spiteful, the foster parents disregard or look down on her, she is indeed the belle of the ball in Manaus, she has a ‘fairy godmother’ in the shape of Miss Minton, the governess who tutors Maia and the twins, and through Minty’s machinations Maia is able to slip away on occasion to befriend the Carter’s workers and meet up with her ‘prince’.
Maia is a genuine girl, one who is intelligent, curious and good-hearted, a character who is both believable and one in whom we willingly invest our sympathy. The Carters would be caricatures if we didn’t in fact all know people just like that: self-centred, greedy, empty headed, cruel or any combination of these traits. And need I mention xenophobic? Miss Minton (a stern governess in a Mary Poppins sort of way) might almost also veer towards caricature if it wasn’t for the fact that she has a heart-breaking secret of her own that we hope for her sake will be resolved (the clues are in the text, if we notice).
And the two principal boys who appear in Maia’s life seem to have their own mysteries. One is Clovis King, a stage name, borrowed from the first monarch who united Gaul after the fall of the Western Roman Empire; he comes to the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus to play Little Lord Fauntleroy, a significant role and a significant name too: Clovis is called on to play the part of a missing young milord, while ‘Fauntleroy’ suggests the derivation enfant le roi, ‘the child king’. The second is a young Brazilian Indian whom Maia encounters, but is he whom he seems to be?
Journey to the River Sea is a beautifully written novel, deserving its many accolades. As with so many young adult novels the protagonist has to find her way in the world through her own courage, gifts and wits, with just a little help from a few friendly helpers. She is the classic ‘outsider’ who doesn’t appear to fit the mould: she looks different, loves books and, above all, is an orphan. (In fact, as we see, most of the children mentioned in this tale lose or have lost one or both of their parents.) Forget that we have a few possible literary trope borrowings (I suspect Peter Pan and Tarzan and The Jungle Book might have been distant influences, as well as the aforementioned Mary Poppins, Cinderella and, obviously, Little Lord Fauntleroy); it’s what Ibbotson chooses to do with these themes that make this both unputdownable and rarely predictable.
Add to all this the book’s central setting in the early 20th-century Amazonian forest, with its distinctive sounds, smells, sights and experiences, juxtaposed with the accoutrements of Western civilisation: dancing and music, grand houses and shops, all symbolised by the incredible building that is the Manaus Opera House. In the theatre one observes everything from high drama to comedy, pathos to bathos, and so it is with Ibbotson’s novel; laughter is here, but so is death; wins as well as setbacks. If the course of novel conforms to the Voyage and Return plot (out from England to Brazil and back again), the final sentence — “‘We are all going home,’ she said.” — promises that all is not over for Maia and her companions, and that the rest of their lives beckons. And if our hearts don’t swell at that then we must truly be stick-in-the-mud individuals.
I’m very grateful to Lizzie Ross who drew my attention to this wonderful book in her blog. Many editions of this novel include an exotic butterfly or two on the cover; though butterflies are one of the many, many plot drivers the choice of this creature as a decorative features reminds me of that famous notion, the so-called Butterfly Effect of chaos theory, where a small local disturbance (a butterfly flapping its wings in a jungle, say) can ultimately give rise to more complex phenomenon (a hurricane in another part of the world, for example). So it is that little happenings in Maia’s life have unintended consequences on the people she comes, however obliquely, in contact with.