In a dystopian future, two children must grapple with the effects of climate change and overcome the burdens inflicted by the ARK Government regime. Sent from their home to the gruelling “pollination camps”, children must do the work of extinct bees and hand-pollenate crops to feed the starved population. Written by the award-winning Sita Bramacharia, this is a children’s story that is as heartwarming as it is harrowing. Reminiscent of the hierarchical society focalised in Collins’ Hunger Games, Where the River Runs Gold, tentatively scrutinises not only the social injustices but the identity politics that lie in the wake of global devastation.
In the wake of Hurricane Chronos, Kairos City has been left broken and barren. Entire ecosystems have collapsed, the bees have died and nature has become sparse. Now, split into social castes, the foragers, the freedoms and the paragons, the entire city is under the watchful eye of ARK Enforcement Officers and Opticare Surveillance drones. Children that have graduated school, at the age of 11, are being forced to leave their families to join the “Freedom Fields Family” and work in pollination tunnels. Herded onto the ‘skylight train’ – cruelly named for its lack of windows – children are blindly transported to Freedom Fields for (what they are told is) a better life. Advertised as a place where children will receive education, fair treatment, freedom, food and fun, the Freedom Fields are not what twins Shifa and Themba had anticipated. Often left tired and hungry, the children of the freedom fields are anything but free. Themba, a creative spirit, particularly struggles to adjust to the demands of the pollination camps. His disruptions run the risk of him being sent to confinement or, worse, sent away. His older sister Shifa must find a way for them both to escape and fast.
Providing scope on the impact that climate change has to offer, one of the greatest things about this book is that it touches upon a lot of complex issues. While this book does not shy away from the darker elements of human existence, miraculously, these themes do not negate from the sibling love that blossoms in their wake. Shifa and Themba are beautifully developed characters and I think the discourse consistently reflects the impact that harsh conditions would have on their relationship. Themba himself is hinted to be on the autistic spectrum and is refreshingly represented as someone that – like all of us – merely sees the world differently. This characterisation explains Shifa’s fierce protection of Themba and is developed in such a naturalistic way that it is heartwarming in its subtlety. Of course, it also adds some urgency to the plot, as the Freedom Family Field guards are none too understanding of Themba’s behaviour.
Powerfully adding to the conflict in this book, however, is Shifa’s contemplation on her role at large within society. She asks herself, why do the paragons get to live in penthouses while less abled children labour? The labour that, in fact, provides them with these luxuries? Indeed, sweat shops are by no means a thing of the past and those most effected by global warming are those that we exploit. Therefore, the questions Shifa poses are evermore relevant in the world that children live in today. In this sense, there is no escaping the self-reflection this book elicits. After all, the very cause of environmental disasters is modern living – outsourcing the unsavoury to those less fortunate than ourselves. Indeed, the parallels between the deportation of children that Bramacharia so sensitively describes and the atrocities that have already been committed throughout history (namely WWII and the slave trade) cannot be easily overlooked. Given Bramacharia’s credentials, it is equally unlikely that the families of the Chronos disaster resemble today’s refugees by mere coincidence. As such, this books makes for an incredibly emotive read in its blurring of fact and fiction.
Though this title explores a lot of difficult themes, I think somewhere along the way it loses its direction. It’s quite hard to pinpoint where this is, but if I were to take a guesstimate I would say that it’s part 3. Where I had been religiously turning the pages in parts 1 and 2, I felt myself losing concentration for the much-awaited finale. Principally, I think this is because the world around Kairos City needs to be explained a bit more. You see, not unlike the children on the skylight train, we too are blinkered in the navigation from Kairos City to the Freedom Fields. Therefore, once the reader is taken outside of these confounds, they become just as lost and confused as the children – but, arguably, not in an exciting way. While, admittedly, this is a fantasy adventure title, the fantastical elements don’t actually come into play until well past the halfway mark. The incorporation of cryptic fairytale rhymes, treasure maps and wilderness exploring, for me, just seems too misplaced by this point. What starts off as a thrilling and believable progression of events, suddenly becomes a bit too farfetched in the last few chapters.
When all is said and done, however, the most effective weapon in this title’s arsenal is that this futurist society does not feel too unfamiliar nor beyond the realms of likelihood. As climate disasters poise to threaten 2020s manmade order and changes in ethical responsibilities alter manufacturing standards, there is more than one lesson that can be learnt from Bramacharia’s “fictionalised” future. For this reason, I would gladly recommend this title as a precursor to conversations on global warming, autism and/or social segregation with young children.
…Where the River Runs Gold is a zeitgeisty book that has the potential to sow the seeds of change.