A Cinderella in Brazil

Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, Brazil
Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, Brazil

Journey to the River Sea
by Eva Ibbotson.
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001).

Born in Vienna in 2025, Eva Ibbotson 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 the displacement 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.

Early 20th-century metal globe showing South America

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. There were titles like Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z, which involved a quest for a mysterious city like El Dorado; some 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 exploitable. 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’ 1977 fantasy 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, though Ibbotson never labours the parallels, that’s 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 borrowed literary tropes (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.


https://enterenchanted.com

A review first published 14th January 2015, reposted for Lory at Enter the Enchanted Castle for Reading the Theatre 2022. 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.

25 thoughts on “A Cinderella in Brazil

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    For some reason Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books have not clicked with me yet. (I’ve enjoyed her romances for older readers.) I will try this one though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only just discovered Ibbotson with this book, Lory, but will certainly be looking for her other titles. I know that with authors like Diana Wynne Jones who write for a range of ages that not all their work appeals in the same way, so I’ll bear your caveat in mind!

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      1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

        I’m not being critical — it’s something about my personality I’m sure. Anyway, this one does sound wonderful! And I enjoyed the Brazilian settings of some of her other books as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so pleased you liked Ibbotson’s book, Chris. I missed the Cinderella connection, so thanks for bringing that up. The Carters, although somewhat cartoonish in their horridness, made me think of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A stretch, I realize, but their cruelty to the Amazonian natives, and Mrs. Carter’s insistence on maintaining proper English ways at the expense of everyone’s comfort, are perfect examples of the blinkered outsider sowing disaster as he steamrollers through what could be Eden.

    I also didn’t know about Ibbotson’s own exile and background, so thanks for the insights. I wonder if Ibbotson saw England as a sort of jungle, something to find her way through before she could think of it as home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only read one Conrad, Lizzie, and it’s so long ago (a book read in class at secondary school) that I can’t even remember the title; probably in a comatose state, as I was through most of that period. ‘Heart of Darkness’ is one I’ve promised myself for some time now.

      I think England just before and of course during the war would have been a strange place anyway for an uprooted child — I’d certainly want to read her other fiction now with a hint of autobiography.

      Thanks again for introducing this to me, Lizzie!

      This appeared as a Comment, not a reply, so you may have missed this back in January!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Two jewels | Lizzie Ross

    1. Of course this isn’t just a retelling of Cinderella, Marineko, just as His Dark Materials isn’t just a modern rehash of Milton’s Paradise epics, but the debts are there, I feel! Hope you enjoy it.

      This too came out as a comment, Marisa, instead of a reply — I blame the vagaries of my WordPress app!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m glad you reposted this, Chris. It’s twenty years since I read the book and it’s the one that rekindled my interest in fiction for older children and teens. Maia is such an engaging character and now I want to read this again with your comments and insights in mind. Emma Carroll has just written an MG book inspired by this, Escape to the River Sea, detailing the adventures of the next generation, it’s due out in June.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it was a total coincidence that I reposted this because of its theatrical motif on the day that I saw that Escape to the River Sea was being touted online. I’m intrigued now!

      Maia is indeed an intriguing character, and I’m considering whether or not to go on to Ibbotson’s 1985 A Company of Swans, about a ballet company travelling to the theatre in … Manaus! Add to that the fact that the protagonist is seeking a lost heir, as in this novel, plus I’m just finishing a novel entitled The Winter Swan, and I think it must be my destiny to read this too for Reading the Theatre! But first, Hag-Seed

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I still haven’t gotten to Ibbotson’s young adult books or any of her romances but see from your review that some themes that one encounters in her children’s books including displacement and the search for a safe home reflect here as well. I’m intrigued by the different tropes and inspirations that seem to reflect in this one as well

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There can be few readers, of whatever age, who don’t wonder how they would fare if they happened to have no parents or found themselves in some unfamiliar environment. That Ibbotson seems to often return to these thoughts and tropes mayn’t just reflect her own childhood but also those she knew would be entertained by readers. I’m sure you’d enjoy her work for older readers if and when you finally got to it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for highlighting this again this month. You make me want to read it all over again. I remember it as a fresh take on a number of time-tested literary tropes, with characters that were fun both to love and to hate, and with quite beautiful writing that I found to be some of Ibbotson’s best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! I’m currently reading Hag-Seed to review in a few days, but haven’t got round to as many theatre-themed books as I hoped this month. Ho hum, I might extend the meme a few more weeks, especially as I wanted to read Ibbotson’s A Company of Swans soon.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sure, it’s not really a challenge, more of an open space for the theme. I just enjoy reading those kinds of books, at any time of year, although I decided to highlight them this month. Any time of year is a good time though!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Not read much of her fiction for younger readers (except the Platform 13 one) but keep coming across recommendations for Which Witch?, hmm… You may have just tipped me over the edge, Ola! Hope I have too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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