Things Fall Apart Before Coming Back Together

chikeill2 In his 1966 book Chike and the River, renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe brings to life the story of eleven-year-old Chike, who  struggles to achieve his dream of crossing the Niger River to the city of Asaba. As with many tales, the heart of the story lies within the journey:

“The more Chike saw the ferryboats the more he wanted to make a 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.”

What follows is a series of adventures both humorous and precarious that aid Chike’s personal growth and understanding of the world, from dealing with a money-doubling village magician to being tricked by his headmaster into carrying a missionary’s luggage across a stream. Through perseverance, Chike eventually realizes his dream, but soon finds Asaba is not as he had imagined. The journey home becomes yet another test of wit and bravery.

A great strength of Achebe’s is his ability to tell vivid stories free of dense prose and convoluted plotlines. The power of his sparse language is found in descriptions of key characteristics and motivations. The privileged essence of Chike’s good friend, Samuel Maduka Obi (who nicknamed himself S.M.O.G. for the effect), comes through in S.M.O.G.’s concept of money. After being swindled by the magician recommended by S.M.O.G., Chike returns to his friend to ask, “Has he ever doubled money for you?” to which S.M.O.G. replies “No, I get everything I need from my mother. So I don’t need to have my money doubled.”

Achebe’s skill is also applied to the setting, as seen in Chike’s take on a big city after having left his mother and two sisters to live with his uncle forty-miles away:

“At first Onitsha looked very strange to Chike. 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 one another. Chike was told by his uncle’s servant that sometimes a man died in one room and his neighbor in the next room would be playing his gramophone. It was all very strange.”

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Unlike previous illustrated editions of Chike and the River, the August 9, 2011 Anchor Books edition features the work of Cuban-born artist Edel Rodriguez, a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine and a former art director for Time Magazine. Each in three colors (red, white and black), the abstract acrylic paintings complement the modest, yet wildly creative spirit of the narrative.

A charming story of the modern versus the traditional, of pushing against and overcoming boundaries, Chike and the River offers enjoyment for readers of any age.

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