Book Review: Chike and the River, by Chinua Achebe

Cover illustration: Random House

I fear sounding glib or obvious, but, really, one of the great things about taking literature courses in college is access to some of the great writers of the world … and by that, I mean in person, teaching you in a small seminar room. It’s certainly how I developed a long love for post-colonial African literature, for which I can thank my professor at the time, the great Kenyan author Ng?g? wa Thiong’o.

Almost 20 years later, I can still see him in the room: Quietly intense but with a gentle, encouraging manner, Ng?g? was one of my all-time favorite teachers and became one of my all-time favorite authors — anyone should get immersed in epic novels, from the angry, political classic Petals of Blood and the hilarious satire The Wizard of the Crow. But Ng?g? also introduced the class to so many authors mostly ignored by the Western canon: Senegal’s Ousmene Sembene (who’s also a great film director), Ghana’s Ayi Kwei Armah, Cameroon’s Ferdinand Oyono. Until then, I and most of classmates knew only Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. His first novel, published in 1958, is a slim, stone-cold masterpiece about the colonialism and the brutal collapse of traditional village life as seen through the eyes of its doomed hero, Okonkwo. Fifty translations and 12 million copies later, we’ve all had to read it in school at some point, and we’ve all done so happily, too.

Well, these days, students at Brown University get to have a regular weekly audience with Achebe himself, much the same way I did with Ng?g?. Since he’s Providence guy now, I’m claiming him as an adjunct local. Achebe joined the faculty at Brown as professor of Africana Studies in 2009 after spending most of his life teaching at the University of Nigeria and the previous 15 years at Bard College. Last spring he sat in on a course devoted to studying his vast body of work; Things Fall Apart was only the first of his many novels, poems, short stories, and essays. Must’ve been quite an experience for the students, if a little intimidating. Much more welcoming for all of us is his long-lost children’s book, Chike and the River, just getting a very belated reissue next week.

Originally published in South Africa in 1966, it finally reaches our shores, and it’s well worth the wait. It’s written elegantly but simply, as befits a book for children, and the tale perfectly blends fable with adventure. Chike, an 11-year-old boy growing up in Umuofia (the same village as in Things Fall Apart), moves to the big city of Onitsha and must adapt to all sorts of modern, urban experiences — but pines to cross the Niger River to explore the seemingly unattainable city of Asaba. Episodic as any good kid’s book should be, it also vividly addresses a young person’s feeling of confusion when everything seems new or how the town always looks cooler on the other side of the river. At 94 pages of large type, it’s a quick read that demands re-reading, an evocative tale matched by woodcut-style illustrations from Edel Rodriguez, a Boston magazine contributing artist.

In short, Achebe’s book is the kind that your child (and you) will hold onto, in the same way as, say, The Phantom Tollbooth or Anne of Green Gables. As the story goes, Achebe wrote it when his daughter was entering preschool in Nigeria. All of her books were written by Westerners, which meant there were no characters just like her, living lives just like hers, so he created one for her. The irony — or more accurately, the confirmation of Achebe’s mastery — is that he created a lovely classic with universal appeal for Africans and Westerners, for children and their parents, and it’s one you don’t have to learn about in college.

Chike and the River, by Chinua Achebe, is released on Tuesday, August 9, by Anchor Books ($10).