Friday, May 10, 2013
THE SECRET RIVER by Marjorie Kinnan
Originally published in 1955, The Secret River won a Newbery Honor award in 1956; author Rawlings also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for The Yearling. In addition to many other awards, illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon received Caldecott Medals for Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears and Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions.
The Secret River addresses the significant issues of hunger and poverty in a gentle and optimistic manner. Young Calpurnia wants to help change “hard” times to “soft” times for her family and village. She decides she will catch fish to feed the townspeople and seeks the guidance of Mother Albirtha, “the wisest woman in the forest,” who tells her how to find a secret river. Calpurnia is successful in her quest, catching plenty of fish to feed the village, although she struggles to make her way home. She encounters several beasts (an owl, a black bear, and a panther) on her journey home and pacifies them with fish. At this point, readers may wonder if Calpurnia will return empty-handed, but she returns with enough food for everyone.
The illustrations aptly convey the scariness of the forest, which is dark with faces embedded in the trees, although the acrylic paintings are somewhat muted to suggest softness. The Secret River contains various messages, such as the importance of helping others and to trust one’s self. However, the book may be trying to do too much by interspersing poetry (created by Calpurnia), regional dialect, and grammar corrections. For instance, when Calpurnia says, “everybody be’s my friend,” her mother corrects the error. Additionally, when Calpurnia goes back to find the secret river, but it is gone, Mother Albirtha tells her,“The secret river is in your mind.” Such a concept may be confusing for readers. Overall, this is an engaging picture book for older readers and it would be best to share with an adult who can help explain some unfamiliar ideas.