Riverland by Fran Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." - Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
My reaction to this book is deeply personal. From its opening passages, which I found excruciatingly familiar, I felt a kinship with the rituals of safety- the house rules, and the magic that these rules invoke for making a fragile home "peaceful." Anyone who knows what it is like to not be able to explain to a friend why they can't come to your house, especially without advance planning. Anyone who has lived with all the rules about what you can say and not say, who you talk to and what you never reveal, will find this book resonates with them. It paints a haunting picture of children's perceptions of domestic abuse.
Riverland is about El and Mike, two sisters who come from an unhappy family. We see the carefully circumscribed world the sisters live in, with all its rules centered on palliating an aggressive Poppa, and their Momma's magic, which holds the home and family together in ways that children will grow to question over the course of the book. But that's only part of this story. Their house, their family, and soon, their magic, is broken, culminating in a mysterious river leaking under El's bed. Since under the bed is a favorite hiding place (again, familiar) it's only natural that when Mike falls in, El dives in after her, taking care of her baby sister, just as she always has done. What they find is another secret world, another one in which agreements and rules were made without their knowledge or understanding. The magic of that world is intimately linked to the house magic of their own world. The alternate world is filled with 'mares (nightmares) and terrifying figures. But is it as bad as the world that El and Mike come home to every day after school? What does it mean when you feel safer in an alt-world than in your own home? The fantasy elements of the story, which in some ways feel more like elements of magical realism (in the tradition of Allende, for example), present the girls with the means to transform their situation.
This is an emotionally complex book that would be the perfect summer reading assignment for middle-grade students. It's a novel about healing hearts, navigating difficult family circumstances, about learning to speak out, upholding agreements, and doing what is right.
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