CHIKE AND THE RIVER by Chinua Achebe

Book Quote:

“The more Chike saw the ferryboats the more he wanted to make the trip to Asaba. But where would he get the money? He did not know. Still, he hoped. “One day is one day,” he said, meaning that one day he would make the journey, come what may.”

Book Review:

Review by Friederike Knabe  AUG 23, 2011)

Chike is Chinua Achebe’s young hero in this gentle, touching story of an eleven-year-old Nigerian boy who has to leave his village in order to continue his schooling in the big city on the shores of the mighty Niger River. It is a charming tale about finding your way in a totally new environment and learning some important life lessons about loyalty, honesty, courage and the strength and limits of dreams. Originally published in 1966 this slim volume has been reissued in a very attractive presentation, fitting beautifully into the publisher’s Achebe publication series, standing out in their stark traditional colours of ochre red, ivory-pale yellow and black, with simple, wood cuts-style images throughout the text. Best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, Chinua Achebe is revered as the father of the African novel and and THE standard for African fiction writing.

In a few simple sentences, Achebe captures both Chike’s happy childhood in the village of Umuofia and his mother’s struggle to make ends meet and to keep him and his two sisters in school. When Chike is told one day that he will be living with his uncle in the big city of Onitsha to continue his schooling, he is excited. Yet, his first impressions of life in Onitsha are filled with confusion: “He could not say who was a thief or kidnapper and who was not. In Umuofia every thief was known, but here even people who lived under the same roof were strangers to each other…” His uncle is very strict with him and Chike finds easier companionship with his uncle’s servant, Michael and his new school friends.

With ease Achebe describes this new world from the boy’s perspective. His friend Samuel tells him how “easy” it is to cross the River Niger by ferry, it only costs one shilling for the return trip. From that moment on, Chike dreams of taking the ferry to the other side of the wide delta and to the much more exciting city of Asaba. But Chike has no money, his uncle having refused to give him any. We can follow the ups and downs of Chike’s search for that one shilling he needs – from finding a sixpence piece, to losing half of it to finding out the hard way that magicians who claim to double your money are not to be trusted. While very specific in its setting, Achebe’s story is universal in its messages.

A great story teller, who is deeply attached to his people’s traditions and values, Chinua Achebe is also a committed educator. In this relatively uncomplicated story he conveys, nonetheless, atmosphere and day-to-day reality of both, rural and urban, African life, illustrated by his comparisons of Umuofia and Onitsha. While written more than forty years ago, much of the underlying issues and realities are still relevant today in African countries and elsewhere. Children are still sent off to relatives who can better afford to look after them and their education. Children still feel lonely and lost in new environments and align themselves to real or false friends. They still yearn as much to travel to places they have dreamed of or can even see in the distance, on the other side of a river… and get themselves into potential trouble for taking such an initiative into their own inexperienced hands. Achebe writes in a gentle, warm and caring way about Chike and his environment, about the severe uncle who could have been a bit more understanding and generous. He brings out the possible temptations and the pitfalls that a young boy can fall into – before he learns his lessons and, of course he does succeed in the end.

Is this a book for children? Yes and no. While usually categorized as a children’s story, I wonder how much young readers in our society would appreciate this for what it is: as much a social portrait and introduction into another society and culture as it is a growing up story with lessons that are important as they are timeless. I prefer to describe Chike and the River as a story for “children of all ages”; those who have remained young at heart will enjoy this tale. And as many of us readers have young people in their closer or wider family, we might also like to share it with children around us. There is much to talk about in this book that both informs about life in an African country and, as well, much that transcends our respective cultures.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor; Original edition (August 9, 2011)
REVIEWER: Friederike Knabe
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Chinua Achebe
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Bibliography:

Nonfiction:

Children’s Books:

  • Chike and the River (1966; August 2011)
  • How the Leopard Got His Claws (1972)
  • The Flute (1975)
  • The Drum (1978)

August 22, 2011 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Africa, World Lit

2 Responses

  1. Roger Brunyate - August 23, 2011

    I am interested in your description of this, Friederike, as a book for children of all ages. So far, I have only read THINGS FALL APART, which is not of course a children’s book but is in many ways childlike in its narrative simplicity. It did not encourage me to read more Achebe, but it may be that in a story written FOR children, the contrast between simplicity of style and complexity of issues might be less bothersome.

    On another note, it was also interesting to revisit ONITSHA after reading Le Clézio’s book of that title, also featuring a young child. But with the Le Clézio in my mind, it was rather surprising to see it referred to as a big city. Perhaps it is, but LeC made it seem like the back of beyond. Roger.

  2. Friederike - August 27, 2011

    Thanks for your comment, Roger. Yes, while this is a children’s book, it has moral messages that apply to wherever children grow up – and parents are encouraged to listen and assist the children. It is a good book for an educational environment too.

    Yes, ONITSHA was also on my mind when I read this short book, written of course much earlier. Onitsha is a reasonably sized city and an important harbour – was already then. For a small boy coming from a village of a few houses, Onitsha must have seemed enormous. “Big city” is also meant to represent the complexity of life in contrast to the simplicity of village life where “everybody knew the thief…”.

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