Jun 9, 2011

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

Set in 1910, Journey to the River Sea is the story of Maia, an orphan girl who’s sent from the Mayfair Academy for Young Ladies in England to Manaus, Brazil, where the Carters, her deceased parents’ only living relatives, reside. Maia is accompanied by her new governess, Miss Minton, an intelligent woman with a mysterious past. Life with the Carters turns out to be very different from what Maia had imagined: the family insist on pretending they’re still in England, and refuse to let Maia meet any of “the natives” or spend any time at all outdoors. But with the help of Miss Minton – and of her friends Clovis King and Finn Taverner, who have plenty of have troubles and secrets of their own – Maia does have the chance to get to know the surrounding Amazon, and completely falls in love with the place in the process.

Journey to the River Sea was my first Eva Ibbotson, but it will certainly not be my last. In fact, I strongly suspect this may well be the start of a long and happy love story. I loved the Edwardian setting of Journey to the River Sea – turn of the century Manaus is captured wonderfully, and comes across as a vibrant city with a rich and diverse population; I loved Ibbotson’s sharp observations and her gentle humour; I loved the characterisation; and most of all I loved the sensibility behind the story. This is a generous, kind book, slightly reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones (which I obviously mean as the highest form of praise).

Some time ago, when I asked my lovely readers to ask me questions about the huge backlog of reviews I had to write, Christy asked:
Regarding the Eva Ibbotson book, the one Ibbotson book I read, I thought the main character was insufferably ‘good’. So, for the book that you read of hers, how was the characterization?
Fortunately this wasn’t the case with Maia at all, though it does make me sad to think it might be a problem in some of her other books. Maia is smart, kind, and unarguably sympathetic, but she’s also assertive, brave, and willing to question authority. She comes across as a realistic thirteen-year-old from Edwardian England who finds herself in very usual circumstances. I loved the fact that both Maia and Miss Minton defy stereotypes of femininity of their time without ever recurring to anachronisms to do so – the early twentieth century, after all, was a time of women travellers and explorers and real life Amelia Peabodys, so their rambles through the jungle and their love of the natural world fit right in.

Another interesting thing about Journey to the River Sea is the fact that its plot strongly echoes Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy. This is a classic I haven’t read yet, but I know enough about it to have been able to recognise the allusions. Plus these works at two levels, with Maia’s friend Clovis King starring in a stage adaptation of the book at the renowned Amazon Theatre midway through the book, and later on the plot mirroring Frances Hodgson Burnett’s – which I thought was very cleverly done.

Journey to the River Sea is quite sharp in its critique of colonialism, racism, and the us-versus-them mentality embodied by the arrogant and isolated Carters. Still, I found that Ibboston came dangerously close to Magical Native territory in the character of Finn. There are moments when he seems to represent an idealisation of native peoples that can be every bit as dehumanising as denigration. This is an aspect of the novel that feels all the more at odds because one of its major overarching themes is very obviously a rejection of the idea that The Blood (nationality, or ethnicity, or skin colour, or class) makes people who they are. But there were a few statements about Finn’s “Indian side” and his “English side” that were hard not to read in essentialising terms, and they made me uncomfortable. Other than this, though, Ibboston wrote with great sensitivity, and clearly took care to portray all characters as real human beings regardless of their background.

My other qualm is a qualm I have with all books set in Lusophone countries: I was inevitably playing a mental game of spot-the-language-mistake, a game that unfortunately writers and editors make far too rewarding. The reason why this bothers me is because not taking the trouble to get the language right inevitably comes across as a dismissal of those who do know the difference. Sure, the majority of the book’s readers won’t know one way or the other, but are they really the only ones worth taking trouble over? I will say that the Portuguese mistakes could have been much worse, though - this was by no means another Speaker for the Dead, possibly because Ibboston wisely refrained from constantly using a language she does not speak. (But still: “teatra” is not a word, my friends. Just...no.)

But this is a minor point, really: Journey to the River Sea is a smart, wise, charming and heart-warming book, complete with a lightly unlikely but very smile-inducing ending. I can’t wait to read more of Eva Ibbotson’s work.

Other points of view:
Bird Brained(ed) Blog
Libri Touches
Rhinoa’s Ramblings
My Favourite Books

(Yours?)

22 comments:

  1. Which Witch, The Secret of Platform 13, Dial-a-Ghost...Read them all to the kids when they were little...warm fuzzys, but that just may be me reminiscing...lol TY:D

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  2. So... which one of those should I read first? :P

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  3. I don't think I've read anything by Eva Ibbotson, but this sounds wonderful. And I'm woefully underread when it comes to books set in South America. Plus you mentioned Little Lord Fauntleroy which was one of my favourite childhood books:)

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  4. I seem to have acquired a collection of Eva Ibbotson books over the last three years but I have yet to read one. I do have this one so I will definitely push it up the pile. There seems to be more and more YA historical fiction turning up lately, several of which I have to read.

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  5. Wonderful review, Ana! I discovered Eva Ibbotson, when I was doing some research on Lippizaner horses and discovered that her book 'The Star of Kazan' featured them. Then I discovered 'Journey to the River Sea' - because it seems to be one of her famous works. I haven't read both yet. Now after reading your review, I want to read both of them now :) The Brazilian setting of the books is fascinating! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the 'spot-the-language-mistake' game :)

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  6. My daughter has been trying to get me to read this for years. Must do so ASAP.

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  7. It sounds fascinating. I will put it on my list to read this summer. Thanks for the review!

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  8. The language thing does bother me as well.
    I haven't read any of her children's or YA adult books but some others and found them lovely. I'm not even a fan of this type of historical fiction but she just writes so nicely. I liked he characters a lot too. "Warm fuzzys" isn't a bad description.

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  9. You always read the most wonderful sounding books, and dissect them beautifully as well. This sounds like another that I probably should add to my wish list. I am glad to have read your thoughts on it, and think I would enjoy it.

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  10. This does sound fascinating. It does seem that many expats throughout the world want their host country to be just like their home country.

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  11. I'd recommend The Secret of Platform 13 next.
    My son and I read almost all of her books when he was in 5th and 6th grade, and that seemed the right age. I remember them as simple but satisfying.

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  12. The language thing always bothers me, too. I've put down books just because the French was ridiculous and driving me crazy. And honestly, how difficult is it to find people who can help with French if you don't know it?

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  13. I have so many of her books on my Middle School library shelves...should give her a chance!

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  14. Took a pole...(My children) and Which Witch took the prize...lol :D

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  15. I haven't read Ibbotson yet, although I've almost picked up a title or two. I don't know what's held me back. I can understand your frustrations with the language mistakes.

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  16. Now you should read The Firefly Pool! It and this are my favorite of Eva Ibbotson's books, and Firefly Pool is my utmost favorite AND it's set in a time and place that Ibbotson really knew well. I mean you will have then read her two best books and it'll all be downhill from there but never mind, Firefly Pool is truly lovely.

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  17. Ive never even heard of this writer! Thanks for the review . . .

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  18. *sigh* I so hate the dismissing thing. I'm very glad it didn't ruin the book for you over all. And it does sound like a lovely book! We have a few of her books, but I haven't read any of them. Annie's enjoyed what she's read of hers--but I don't recall her reading this one. As I was sitting here typing this, I saw Jenny's comment--I think I'd like to read The Firefly Pool based solely on its name. :)

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  19. I must admit I have never heard of this author and some of the references that you made completely flew over my head, but this book still sounds incredibly interesting to me. It sounds like Ibbotson is a really great writer worth checking out. And it also sounds like I might be able to learn a thing or two from picking up this book. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  20. Rather behind on catching up with blogs! Good to hear that the characterization of the main character was balanced and not leaning to far into unbearable goody-good territory. It's intriguing that this book is set in the Amazon. (In case you're curious: The one book I've read of Ibbotson's is The Countess Below Stairs, and which made me ask my question.)

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  21. Regarding your qualms about Ibbotson using the language incorrectly, if I remember right, it is Maia who uses 'Teatra' when she is trying to explain where she wants to go to Finn who she thinks doesn't speak English. It's understood that her Portugese is quite poor, so maybe the inaccuracy is forgiveable? There could be other mistakes that can't be explained though, I can't remember.

    Also, Eva Ibbotson was one of my favourite childhood authors. The Journey to the River Sea remains one of most-loved and most-read books, for nostalgic reasons if nothing else. I remember being vicariously enamoured with the Amazon, and I hope one day I can go there and pretend (like the sad sop I am) that I am living Maia's life.

    One thing about Ibbotson that you'll notice if you read a lot of her works (and I mean a LOT, particularly her fiction aimed at older audiences) is that her characters reappear in almost every novel with only minor alterations. For me, who loves her so much, I see this as a quirk, a loveable imperfection. But it is true that most of her main female protagonists are very 'good' and cultured. Their appearances also tend to be a unconventionally beautiful - Maia's long dark hair and triangular face contrast the twins' traditional image of beauty with their blond curls and dimples. There is also always a male companion that is quite manly and strong-minded, and Ibbotson likes to make them a little exotic - Finn had and Indian mother and is very independent, so stands out from the other European boys such as Sergei and Clovis. Likewise in 'Star of Kazan' Zed has a Romany background, and escapes on his own. Then there is the adversary (or family of adversaries) who is/are always two-dimensionally 'bad' and tend to be uncultured and incredibly greedy (contrasting the protagonists' selflessness). The parents of the protagonists are always very kind and gentle, and are often dead or separated from the protagonist for one reason or another.

    Concerning plot points, Ibbotson is a big fan of separating characters because of angsty misunderstandings (this verges on being insufferable in her adult fiction, but is kept on leash in her YA novels). She is also very interested in the idea of inheritance and accepting (or rejecting) one's role in a noble or prestigious family.

    Explaining all this has been a bit of an indulgence for me, who loves her books but can admit to her flaws. However, I will say that all these similarities between her books never stop me from enjoying them. In fact, when I come across similarities, it feels like I'm greeting an old friend and makes me feel all fuzzy inside. Eva Ibbotson's most precious gift is her ability to transport you into a daydream of a world where idealism is reality and everything is simply beautiful, and this she never fails to do.

    So please read more of her work! I really recommend 'Star of Kazan' as being quite similar in feel to 'Journey to the River Sea'. And the plots are quite different as well (it's mostly her adult fiction that focuses more on romance that falls victim to all-too similar plot structures).

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