The cover of Katherine Rundell’s 2017 Costa award winning children’s novel The Explorer is surely a triumph of design. Its tropical lushness made me want to dive straight into the adventure …
… and what an adventure it is.
Four children are the only four passengers in the plane, when it crashes into the Amazon jungle. (I’m not sure why they’re making the trip, but it’s not important.) The plane crashes after the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack. Fred, Con (call her Constantia at your peril), Lila and her younger brother Max must survive on their own. Fortunately Fred, whose ambition is to one day be a bona fide explorer, has read many nature books and survival stories. So they have at least some clue where to start and how to cope. They are intelligent kids and learn what is edible and how to forage from watching the behaviours of other creatures.
Though getting back to civilisation with all four in one piece is a big ask. The setting is early 20th century, so there is no technological assistance. They must form a team, put aside petty squabbles and walk or raft their way out of the jungle, always keeping an eye out for young Max, whose tendency to wander off presents an ever-present risk. The wild life isn’t agressive – even the piranha just bare their teeth; they don’t attack. The bad guys are the bullet ants.
As the quartet get their bearings, work out a plan, they find evidence that someone has been this way before. They find a map and decide to follow it. This brings them into contact with the explorer of the title. He is begrudging in his welcome, yet humane enough not to ignore the needs of others.. As someone with no wish to return to civilisation, he is not willing to lead them out of the jungle, but he will teach them how to survive long-term. Cue bug-eating, spider-hunting, all kinds of get-me-out-of-here! activity.
The explorer has his own reasons for wishing to stay, though he realises the kids must not. He impresses on them that they must never divulge his existence – his motivation relates to keeping the jungle as virgin as possible. He does not want the hoards descending and ruining the environment. Thus does Rundell make her quite traditional adventure story modern and relevant to today’s environmental concerns. Without preachiness. The kesson is learned vicariously through Fred, who originally refuses to promise to keep the secret, finally appreciating the need.
Because this is a children’s book, I never felt any great sense of menace. Its thoroughly enjoyable escapism charmed the socks off me.
Charm is not a word I’m associating with My Sweet Orange Tree, José Mauro de Vasconelos childhood memoir of life in an impoverished family in Rio de Janeiro, even if the main character is an endearing, lovable child. I found it quite shocking.
Let’s start with the story about the 5-year old Zeze, the author in his boyhood, receiving no Christmas presents. Not a story to stir my heartstrings I’m afraid – I can’t abide Christmas sentimentalism of any description. Nevertheless, the anecdote serves to demonstrate the abject poverty of Zeze’s family, made up of an unemployed father, a mother largely absent due to her long working hours, and 7 siblings. It also demonstrates Zeze’s inate goodness of heart. Realising the hurt an indiscreet comment about having no money has caused, Zeze goes out with his shoe-shine box in an attempt to earn some pennies to buy his dad a present.
The shoe-shine box is one of the many facts of life that Zeze takes for granted in a childhood that is entirely alien to UK norms. He accepts it, as he does the physical punishments meted out on him by elder sister, elder brother, father for his many transgressions. The phrase used of Zeze “he has the devil in him” is rooted in the prevailing Catholicism, but also refers to Zeze’s mischievousness. He is a scamp, and is always getting into some scrape or other.
At 5, he is an intuitive reader. The family send him to school early, probably to keep him occupied and to give themselves some respite. He is a natural student and forms an easy relationship with bis teacher. But no real friendships with his peers. Poverty creates a boundary that cannot be traversed. His only friend at this time is the little sweet orange tree in the back garden, which Zeze calls Pinkie. He talks to it, climbs it, its branches transforming into a steed in some wild western adventure …
But Zeze’s life is precarious. A cut to his foot becomes a life-threatening injury, and it takes the intervention of an outsider to ensure he receives the treatment he requires. This man, Manuel Valadares, is destined to become Zeze’s only real human friend, providing him with a respite from his dire family circumstances, taking him on outings, talking to him about his concerns. Yet it is a friendship that must remain secret. His father does not approve of Valadares – he is Portuguese, while Zeze is half-Indian, half-Portuguese. Dark undercurrents of racism flow beneath the text. They aren’t tackled head-on as My Sweet Orange Tree is written from a child’s POV, but they do exist.
Much more disturbing, however, are the physical beatings that Zeze must endure, A clip around the ear, a slap with a slipper. If anything goes wrong, Zeze becomes the scapegoat because he is always up to mischief (and not always harmless mischief at that.) As time goes by he begins to question the injustice of it. His colouring is fair. Perhaps his family target him because of that. And the beatings get more brutal. His father loses the plot when Zeze sings an adult song – not understanding the lyrics. The resulting injuries are so severe that Zeze must be kept out of sight until he has recovered.
Yet worse is to follow. A tragic accident deprives him of his friend, but, because of the secrecy Zeze must bear his grief alone …
… it’s all quite harrowing and heartbreaking. Not mis-lit as such, because it is full of childhood imagnination and adventure also, but still, this is not at all the sweet childhood memoir I was expecting. Then again, childhood for some isn’t the privileged, protected experience that is granted to the majority of kids here in the West. So it’s no surprise that Pinkie stopped talking to Zeze by the time he was six. His childhood was over, almost before it began.
De Vasconcelas wrote My Sweet Orange Tree about 40 years after these events as a lament to that lost childhood. “The truth, my dear Portuga, is that they told me things way too soon.” The poignancy of the dedication brought me close to tears. It was written in remembrance of Manuel Valadares, who in teaching him “the meaning of tenderness” appears also to have given José a resilence some of his other siblings lacked; the two closest to him “giving up on life” in their early twenties.
I used the word shocking at the beginning of this review and the contents explain some of that. But I find myself even more shocked that My Sweet Orange Tree is considered by many a beloved children’s book. Really? Or am I instinctively and unnecessarily wanting to wrap our young ones in cotton wool?