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Thursday, October 15, 2015

'The River And The Book' by Alison Croggon

From the BLURB:

Combining magical realism and fable, this lyrical tale is the story of a landscape and community destroyed by Western greediness.

In our village we had two treasures: the River, which was our road and our god; and the Book, which was our history, our oracle and our soul. Simbala is a Keeper of the Book, the latest in a long line of women who can read the Book 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 who comes to the village who inflicts the greatest damage of all.

‘The River and the Book’ is the new youth literature work from Australia author Alison Croggon. 

This is a thought-provoking and wildly compelling book of magical realism, exploring colonialism, and exploitation of indigenous people by the First World. It’s the story of a village that has a Book which is both oracle & soul – predicting future, answering questions – but when developers come and poison the nearby river, everything changes.

Our protagonist is young woman Simbala ‘Sim’ – part of a matriarchy within her village, of women who can read The Book. But then a stranger comes, a writer, who perhaps has her own best intentions, but they inevitably unravel the Indigenous Culture with corporate greed.

Yes, there are a lot of metaphors and not terribly subtle allusions to Western Imperialism in this short, 136-page book. But I don’t know that the subject of human rights and colonialism, alongside the annihilation of Indigenous cultures can be done light-footedly. And why should it?

This is a book appropriate for readers aged 12+, I’d say – and those young readers will find important, insightful discussion within its pages. That it’s often confronting and uncomfortable reading is one of its strengths. And the proof is in the fact that the book is endorsed by Amnesty International UK, “as contributing to a better understanding of human rights and the values that underpin them.”

Mely asked me today why I keep writing this book. I was surprised by her question, and thought about it for some time. I want, I told her, to tell my story to someone, even if it is only Mely who hears it. Mely pointed out that I could just say it to her, without all the bother of scratching the pen over the paper, and cursing at my mistakes, and having to start again. “I would listen,” she said. “I like to listen to you.”

While it is slow in parts, this book will nevertheless ignite serious discussions for young readers – among them can be investigating tribes that went undetected in the modern world and avoided Westernisation. But there’s also a bit of magical realism fun in here – including a sassy talking cat – and beautiful illustrations by Katie Harnett. A small book with a powerful message.


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