I found this book because I was looking for something for my Year 7 classes to read that sat well with their Humanities topic, Source to Sea. Last term their Humanities topic was Rainforests. So, being about a girl who moves from London to the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil, this seemed to fit the bill quite well. Sure, the main character’s a girl, but, oh well, if it turns out to be a bit girlie – the boys will just have to cope with it. After all, they have read Boy Overboard and Kensuke’s Kingdom so far this year. Both have boy protagonists. So it’s time for the girls.
Mind you, the boys are not going to be impressed when they see the cover. It’s apricot with two butterflies on it. And it has a gold sticker, which means it’s won an award, which means it’s a ‘good’ book. How many signs does a boy need?
And the first line’s not going to lug them in, either. ‘It was a good school, one of the best in London.’ Oh dear. Not exactly, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ is it?! I know they are going to look at me with big eyes, thinking, ‘really, Mrs OW…’ They will howl, ‘It is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day! We’re going to move to Timbuktu.’
And I will have to say, ‘Be still, wild things,’ just to mix up the picture book allusions a little, and convince them that even though this book is set (initially) in the Mayfair Academy for Young Ladies, in 1910 London, and even though the main character is a girl who is an orphan, whose best friend is called Hermione, who is about to meet her twin girl cousins Gwendolyn and Beatrice, they will love this book. Even though she has a Governess. Called Miss Minton.
I will have to remind them that they thought they were too big to enjoy ‘Eeyore’s Birthday,’ and yet when I read it to them they begged for more. And when we were talking about The Indian in the Cupboard the other day, they suddenly realised that Omri was just like Eeyore putting the popped balloon into the empty honey jar, when he put his plastic Indian into the cupboard.
They will have to trust me, even though in their hearts they will be wondering why I am using their valuable reading time for this when they could be reading Percy Jackson, or Artemis Fowl, or for those boys who love realistic fiction, a good Des Hunt adventure! But, like The Little Train That Could, I think I can, I think I can…
And I think I can because this is a wonderful book. It is a real, not-old-fashioned adventure. Maia turns out to be gutsy and intelligent, and Miss Minton, her governess does a nice turn in wryness and dryness, with enough sceptical tolerance of those too wealthy for their own good, to make her very likeable indeed. Thank goodness there are some great boy characters in Clovis King and Finn Taverner, as well.
Essentially, the plot goes something like this (without too many spoilers, I hope). Maia is at boarding school in London, but her guardian has been looking for family to take care of her, since her parents died in a train crash two years before. Finally, he locates distant family living in Manaus, in the Brazilian Rainforest. Maia is the kind of girl who tries to make the best of things, but is very human, too. When she meets her governess and leaves school with her friends waving goodbye:
‘Doesn’t she look fierce?’ whispered Melanie.
‘Poor you,’ mumbled Hermione.
And indeed the tall, gaunt woman looked more like a rake or a nutcracker than a human being.
The door of the cab opened. A hand in a black glove, bony and cold as a skeleton, was stretched out to help her in. Maia took it and, followed by the shrieks of her schoolmates, they set off.
For the first part of the journey Maia kept her eyes on the side of the road. Now that she was really leaving her friends it was hard to hold back her tears.
She had reached the gulping stage when she heard a loud snapping noise and turned her head. Miss Minton had opened the metal clasp of her large black handbag and was handing her a clean handkerchief embroidered with the initial ‘A’.
‘Myself,’ said the governess in her deep, gruff voice, ‘I would think how lucky I was. How fortunate.’
‘To go to the Amazon, you mean?’
‘To have so many friends who were sad to see me go.’
‘Didn’t you have friends who minded you leaving?’
Miss Minton’s lips twitched for a moment.
‘My sister’s budgerigar, perhaps. If he had understood what was happening. Which is extremely doubtful’
And so begins the peculiar friendship of Miss Minton and Maia. We know they are like minded, because at the end of chapter one, when a porter goes to pick up Miss Minton’s trunk,
‘You’ll need two men for that,’ said the governess.
The porter look offended. ‘Not me. I’m strong.’
But when he came to lift the trunk, he staggered.
‘Crikey, Ma’am, what have you got in there?’ he asked.
Miss Minton looked at him haughtily and did not answer. Then she led Maia onto the platform where the train waited to take them to Liverpool and then the RMS Cardinal bound for Brazil.
They were steaming out of the station before Maia asked, ‘Was it books in the trunk?’
‘It was books,’ admitted Miss Minton.
And Maia said, ‘Good.’
The pacing is perfect. We learn so much from what is not said. Miss Minton is not your average governess and Maia is not your average Young Lady.
On the boat to Brazil, Maia makes friends with Clovis King, a young actor heartily homesick for London. On arriving in Brazil she discovers that things are not quite as she had hoped they would be, and while not quite Cinderella, there is enough reference for even young children to see the twins as the ugly sisters. But Maia is no Cinderella, waiting for a fairy godmother to fix everything for her.
Maia meets a mysterious young boy, when she is exploring the forest near her new home, and a wonderful adventure begins, with as many twists and turns as any good river may be expected to have. As Books for Keeps says, ‘This is a thoroughly enjoyable yarn, veering between farce and tragedy, and peopled with highly quixotic but believable characters It revels in the joy and the danger of exploration…Very highly recommended.’
And for someone who enjoys books to reference other literature, this one surely does. Little Lord Fauntleroy is the play that Clovis is in. Macbeth is also put on by the acting company on the boat, in another example of the pithy Miss Minton:
‘Mrs Goodley was Lady Macbeth of course and Maia thought she was very stirring, tottering about all over the place and muttering ‘Out damned spot’ with a terrible leer. So she was rather hurt when Miss Minton, who had been reading, closed her book and got ready to go below.
‘Don’t you like Shakespeare?’ asked Maia.
Miss Minton gave her a look. ‘I rank Shakespeare second only to God,’ she said. ‘Which is why I am going to my cabin.’
Later, when Maia is at her cousins, the Carters, there is a lovely scene where Mrs Carter, who loathes insects with a passion and a flit gun is chasing around in the early morning:
In the corridor, wearing a dressing gown and a turban to protect her hair, was Mrs Carter. She had the flit gun in her hand and was carefully squirting every nook and cranny with insect killer. Then she disappeared into the cloakroom, fetched a broom, and began to thump and bang on the ceiling to get rid of possible spiders. Next came a bucket of disinfectant and a mop with which she squelched across the tiled floor – and all the time she muttered, ‘Out!’
It is hard not to remember Lady Macbeth, and particularly Mrs Goodley’s interpretation, and of course the foreshadowing of madness to come.
This book was second in running for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year (2001) and the Guardian Fiction Award (2001). As judge Anne Fine says: But we all (the judges Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman) fell on Eva Ibbotson’s perfectly judged, brilliantly light to read, civilised Journey To The River Sea, in which we are shown how, as one of the characters reminds us, “Children must lead big lives… if it is in them to do so.” Oh, please let her write another book as fine as this, because, in any other year, we would have handed her the prize without a thought.
Read the Guardian article here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/oct/09/guardianchildrensfictionprize2001.awardsandprizes18
This is a book well worth a read by children and by their parents!