Winner Young Adult Category, and Overall Winner, NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, 2013
It is illegal for this book to be sold to children under 14 years of age.
This book is the prequel to Ted Dawe’s Thunder Road (2003), which won both the Young Adult and Best First Book awards in the 2004 NZ Children’s Book Awards. Having read ‘Into the River’, I am very keen to read ‘Thunder Road’. One of the things about a prequel is that it is always leading to a thoroughly told beginning, and so there is an inevitability to the story. Even though I haven’t read Thunder Road, I could really feel the inexorable drive of this story. I think this is a real strength of the book.
The story beings with young Te Arepa and his best friend Wiremu eeling. This is beautifully written, with the friendship between Wiremu and Te Arepa having real legs. The dialogue and interaction have a truth to them that draws the reader ‘Into the River’ with them, as they catch a monster eel:
‘He’s a monster!’
‘He’s the taniwha of the river!’
The eel made his leisurely way downstream, the hook projecting from the side of his mouth. The boys trotted along, keeping pace. After fifty metres, the river changed course and crossed a shallow ridge of river boulders.
‘We can get him when he crosses the rocks,’ yelled Wiremu.
As if it heard, the eel immediately made for the bank. It nuzzled its way into the reeds immediately above the rapids.
‘Now’s our chance,’ said Te Arepa. ‘We might be able to drag him over to the rocks.’
They let the line go slack and ran to where it was shallow enough to cross. Once they were halfway across, they began to pull together. At first it seemed pointless. Nothing would shift this monster. But then his head appeared and he made a dash straight past them over the rushing rocks.’
However, as the back of the book says:
‘Some rivers should not be swum in. Some rivers hold secrets that can never be told.
When Te Arepa Santos is dragged into the river by a giant eel, something happens that will change the course of his whole life. The boy who struggles to the bank is not the same one who plunged in, moments earlier. He has brushed against the spirit world, and there is a price to be paid; an utu to be exacted.’
As you may have noticed, Te Arepa’s last name is Spanish. The telling of the story of Diego, the ancestor who gave Te Arepa his last name, is a fantastically wrought tale told over three nights to Te Arepa and his younger sister Rawinia, by their grandfather, Ra. All of this tale weaving lulls you into a false sense of security. You feel, as a reader that, when Te Arepa is offered a place at an elite Auckland Boarding School for boys, he has the strength to cope and to hold on to who he is.
But it doesn’t quite work like that.
As Paikea drives him to Auckland in her courier van, Te Arepa becomes transfixed with her driving – the way that she seems at one with the vehicle. He has his first lesson (despite being 13 years old). At school, he is given a new name – Devon – and makes he friends with the worldly and world weary Steph, athlete and petrol-head Mitch, and farm boy Wingnut. Progressively, Devon separates himself from everything that identifies him as Maori, because of the consistent and persistent bullying from the older boys and even the masters. His first year at school reveals some cracks, but his second year is relentless.
While there may seem to be some similarities between ‘Snakes and Ladders’ (another NZ Post Children’s Book Awards nominee) and ‘Into the River’ (small town boy is moved to elite Auckland boarding school, where he needs to learn to deal with the super rich and the bullies, as well as the eccentricities of elite boarding school life) in reality, there are few. This tale is an absorbing, relentless, addictive read. The characters are well drawn and three dimensional – although not always likeable. There is an inevitability to the story that feels real, even though you don’t want it to be that way.
This book is definitely 14+ in my view, as sex, drugs, alcohol etc feature relatively prominently – but not gratuitously (at least most of the time…it does occasionally slip into 14yr old fantasyland…IMO) Recommended. 4/5 stars.
Read more about Ted Dawe here:
Read another review of Into the River here: