Journey to the River Sea; Eva Ibbotson, 2001.

by juno on February 4, 2013

journeytotheriverseaIn the throes of a relentless virus from a week before Christmas until long after New Year’s, my plans to read grownup books over the holidays flew out the window, and when I could read at all, all I was good for was yet another rereading of a handful of Eva Ibbotson’s YA novels: The Morning Gift, A Company of Swans, A Countess Below Stairs, The Reluctant Heiress, A Song for Summer.

Ibbotson’s oeuvre falls into three categories: YA (originally published as adult books, before there was YA), kids’ chapter books, and kids’ chapter books with magic. The YA novels are all highly romantic tales of true love crossed by ridiculous misunderstandings. The women are young, often not even twenty, often hiding or being forced by war to hide their noble backgrounds. The men are in their early 30s, successful by dint of their own hard work and talents, though sometime’s there’s a family fortune behind them, too. In both male and female characters some great skill or talent is usually present—for music, for dance, for the natural sciences, for the household arts. When I first read these books I didn’t think they were clichéd, precisely—I felt that she had magically hit all my internal clichés, my favorite childhood tropes: romantic European settings, just before or during WW II, perhaps my favorite time and place to read about. Throw in the genius for science, music, cooking, the stern but secretly kind English governesses, the family jewels and crumbling castles, the verdant Austrian countryside with its crystal lakes, English gardens, the mysterious Amazon with its extraordinary flora and fauna. And kindness—every heroine so gifted in human relations, so chock full of EQ. Truth be told, after you’ve read several of these books, you may feel she employs a formula. But is that always so bad? They are like warm pudding when you are unwell.

Ibbotson’s other books are aimed at the 8 and up crowd. Most of them include magic and magical beings—witches, ogres and the like. I would wager that her books are some of the many that comprise J. K. Rowling’s source material (Secret of Platform 13?). The few that do not are similar in setting to her YA books. True love is replaced by true friendship. The main characters may marry someday, when they grow up, but we do not watch them kiss or consummate.

I’ve just read for only the first time (!) one of this group, Journey to the River Sea, a lovely and memorable tale of a musical, well-heeled orphan, Maia, sent from her cheerful English boarding school to live with distant relatives far up the Amazon in Manuas. Bad relatives. We meet a half-Indian boy who’s all English on his father’s side, a boy actor, a corseted English governess with secrets of her own, and boundless reservoirs of pluck, ingenuity and courage, all wrapped up in a pleasingly interwoven plot. Great fun to read to yourself into the night, when the house is quiet, and even more fun to read aloud to some young adventurous mind who abides with you or in your neighborhood. And then to read again.

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