Eva Ibbotson is a wonder, and her books never fail to transport me into her world. For a long time I have attempted to put my finger on exactly what it is that makes them so enchanting, and I think reading Journey to the River Sea has finally enabled me to do so.
Although mostly written within the last three decades, all of her books - or those I’ve read so far - are set at the turn of the twentieth century, or during the second world war period. They are traditional, everything is always terribly proper, and there is always an element of having fallen on hard times. Think Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, or White Boots - books I have adored since I was a child and could read over and over again. Yet, the characters within her books break out of the boundaries she sets for them, they win out against the odds, they show themselves to be strong, determined women (despite the constraints set upon them by the times), and - perhaps most importantly - they have a happy ending and all the pieces come together.
Journey to the River Sea is no exception to this rule. It is 1910 and Maia, an orphan, is being shipped off to her only surviving relative, a man named Mr Carter, who lives deep in the Amazon. She couldn’t be more excited and spends the journey imagining the lives of her cousins, the things they get up to and the exotic pets they might have. But when she finally arrives, the reality is disastrously different to her wild imagination: the Carters are stoically British and unadventurous. Mrs Carter refuses to eat locally produced food, is obsessed with sealing her house off from creepy crawlies, and won’t let the children play outside; Mr Carter is oblivious and uncaring of anything other than his glass eye collection; the twin girls are rude, ignorant and unfriendly. They only agreed to take Maia in because of the money she brings with her - something which is much needed thanks to Mr Carter’s complete lack of business sense. The only brightness in Maia’s new life is the governess, Miss Minton, who quietly pulls the wool down over the Carter’s eyes, giving Maia a little touch of freedom.
This is the perfect book for any young girl, especially one with a sense for adventure. Despite the restrictions the Carters place on her, Maia takes the bit of freedom Miss Minton provides, stretches it out, and makes it her own. As with any Ibbotson character, Maia is instilled with kindness and friendliness, always thinking of and trying to help others, whilst simultaneously creating an adventure of her own. Having made friends with two boys who are as different to each other as two peas in a pod, it falls to her to extricate them from their troubles, which she does with aplomb, while also, of course, solving her own. Adventure is inevitable.
Ibbotson’s own self is reflected in many of the books she writes, as the same themes crop up again and again - themes reminiscent of her own childhood as a Jewish refugee in war era Britain. As recently written in a Daily Telegraph article (Before JK Rowling, there was Eva Ibbotson), her son says, “Ma’s entire work was about her childhood – always on the run, never with a mother and father in the same house. It was more than that she wanted to write happy stories; she couldn’t do anything else.” I can't recommend her enough.