Although I count her among my most favorite authors, I have put off reviewing any of Eva Ibbotson's books for almost a year after starting this blog because I knew I'd need to set aside a large chunk of time to do justice to her works. I also knew that I couldn't just review one of her books - I would have to review as many as I could. I thought that I would be able to skim the books, all of which I have already read, then review them. What I didn't realize was that I would get sucked into each and every one and end up re-reading all the books from cover to cover!
Eva Ibbotson is such magnificent writer capable of creating characters that you love and wish were your best friends as well as characters who are devious, self-centered, snobbish and downright mean. While her writing is highly descriptive and visual, it is also plain spoken and straightforward. Whether she is telling a story set in unique geographical location and time period or in a magical world, she always manages to bring together a diverse group of characters with actions and intentions that ring true no matter what their circumstances. In Journey to the River Sea, Ibbotson describes a character who has just received the best news possible as seeming to be made of "something quite different. Not muscle and bone - feathers and air . . . and lightness. He did not actually intend to fly, because that would have been showing off, but he could have done so if he wanted to." On top of this, Ibbotson has a way with writing about magical people and creatures that is deliciously imaginative, touchingly human and frequently funny, especially in her book Island of the Aunts. At times, Ibboston's writing is evocative of classic children's writers such as Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott and the imcomprable E Nesbit.
Journey to the River Sea begins in 1910 in London, England. Maia, a student at the Mayfair Academy For Young Ladies has been an orphan since her parents, archaeologists who often took her on their travels, were killed in a train crash in Egypt two years previously. During these two years, Maia's guardian and family lawyer, Mr Murray has been searching for a relative who can care for Maia when he discovers the Carters. Mr Carter is a second cousin of Maia's father who has moved his family not far from the city of Manaus in Brazil with the hopes of making a fortune as a rubber planter. When Maia learns of this she begins to study all she can about the Amazon and Brazil, her imagination ignited by descriptions of the jungles and flora and fauna that inhabit it. She also lends her excited imagination to envisioning the Mr and Mrs Carter's twin daughters, Beatrice and Gwendolyn and the fine times they will have exploring together. Miss Minton is hired as a governess for Maia and the twins, who are the same age as she is, and chaperones her on her journey from England to Brazil. On board the Cardinal, Maia and Miss Minton meet a troupe of traveling actors, one of whom is the young Jimmy Bates who goes by the stage name Clovis King. The troupe is preparing their version of Little Lord Fauntleroy for performances in Manaus and will then move on to other venues. Clovis, an orphan who left his foster mother to join the actors, constantly pines for the cold weather of England as well as the fine (that's his opinion, anyway) English cooking done by his foster mother that he has left behind as well as constantly worries that the onset of puberty and the imminent change in his voice will cause him to be expelled from the troupe for no longer being able to play the part of young children in their performances. When this happens during the dramatic climax of the performance in Manaus, Clovis is laughed off the stage and kicked out of the troupe and his story begins.
Maia and Miss Minton, who has a bittersweet story of her own that precedes her journey to the Amazon, arrive at Taphernini, or the House of Rest, as Mrs Carter has named her home, they find things are not at all what they had imagined. The house, reeks of Lysol and the windows are never opened. The twins are spoiled and unwelcoming and jealous of all that Maia is capable of. Miss Minton notices this immediately and, for Maia's protection, separates her from the twins during lessons on the utterly false premise that she is lagging so far behind them in her studies she will only slow them down. The twins and Mrs Carter are so vain that they do not even question this. What's worse for Maia is Mrs Carter's insistence that they replicate their lives in England in the heart of the Amazon. They eat (dreadful) imported British food, treat the native servants with disdain and, worst of all, never leave the house for fear of encountering the nature all around them. Mrs Carter spends her days wandering the house with a flit gun, spraying chemicals into every crack in an effort to keep the bugs out of the house. However, through their innate curiosity and wonder at their situations, both Maia and Miss Minton manage to connect with the world outside of the stifling walls of Taphernini.
When British detectives come to Manaus in search of Finn Taverner, son of the noted British naturalist and explorer, Bernard Taverner, recently deceased, mystery and intrigue are introduced into the plot. With the locals on his side, Finn, who is half Xanti Indian, manages to evade the detectives, sent to return him to his ancestral estate that he is now the sole heir to. Finn has been raised by his father to be wary of the British. It was a British doctor who refused to tend to his native mother in the middle of the night when she went into labor and eventually died. He has also been raised to avoid a return to Westwood at all costs. It seems his father's childhood there was both miserable and brutal as he did not fit the Taverner mold. However, a friendship between the two children blossoms when Finn rescues a hopelessly lost Maia The friendship deepens when Finn introduces Maia, who is now allowed to leave the house after Miss Minton invents "pulmonary spasms," a condition which requires fresh air, to the people and ways of the jungle that she has been longing to experience. Maia, a gifted pianist and promising singer, realizes that, in Brazil, music is always around her. She begins to take an interest in the music of the various tribes and attempts to learn their songs in an effort to learn their folk songs. The lives of Finn, Clovis and Maia become intertwined, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. And, in the end, after a few false starts, the adults meant to guide and protect them come through
There is so much more wonder and joy at the beauty of nature and the discoveries it holds in this book, as well as more misguided, bigoted, spiteful behavior. But, the good outweighs the bad and in the end the Carters all get their just desserts - desserts that are equal to the reconstituted, rubbery puddings Mrs Carter insisted on serving at Taphnernini.
If you do not read any other book by Eva Ibbotson, I highly suggest you read this one. While I am a huge fan of fantasy and adore her books of this genre, there is something so timeless and hopeful about Journey to the River Sea that I think every child - and adult - should experience it. And, while Maia and Miss Minton dominate the story, Finn and Clovis are strong characters who should appeal to boy readers as well.
If you enjoyed this book, I suggest The Star of Kazan and The Dragonfly Pool, Eva Ibbotson's other non-magical stories. I also recommend anything by Gloria Whenlan but especially Listening for Lions another one of my all-time favorites. And, of course, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy, both by Frances Hodgson Burnett and both thematically influential in Journey to the River Sea, which, by the way, is what some travelers call the Amazon.