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Chinua Achebe’s “Chike and the River”

Chinua Achebe is one of the world’s literary treasures. His novels and short stories have moved and taught us for decades. Recently, I revisited one of his stories, that I read many years ago in high school. It moved me again, though in more nuanced ways. Chike and the River is one of those rare, deeply human stories. Some critics demean it as simply a young boy’s “coming of age” story. It is that, but it is much more. Chike and the River explores the clash between our imaginations and reality; it dives into the space between hope and contentment. Through Achebe’s masterful prose, it does this all in less than a hundred pages, as an extended short story or novella. The story was originally published in 1966 but it has recently come out from Anchor Books in a new version with gorgeous drawings by Edel Rodriguez. (August 2011)

Chike is a young boy with an imagination. He yearns to see more of the world than his village, but when given the opportunity, he is fearful and reluctant. He moves from his mother’s small village to live with an uncle where he will have the chance at an education. There, his appetite for dreaming is fed. His uncle lives near the Niger River and this captures Chike’s imagination. What is life like across the river? What is life like up and down the river? He hears various stories from his playmates but he can’t know them to be true until he sees other places for himself.

Chike explores his new city, and its ever-present river, with a very human blend of curiosity and fear. He gets mixed up in boyish games but persistently trusts himself and thus, he learns. While the story proceeds with a gentle simplicity, like a serene river, its ups and downs create nuances which are realistic and human. No one is entirely bad or good. No piece of advice is always right. We live between poles, not on absolutes. Chike learns these essential lessons by way of moments that are sometimes frightening and sometimes comic. But he learns, and we can as well, about living in-between the extremes of human expectations and behaviors. Little of life is black and white. Lots of life is grey. Yet the grey, the quiet realities of daily living are beautiful and satisfying.

What will we do in a world without Chinua Achebe? He is among the world’s best storytellers. While many of us know him for his masterful Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s shorter works, especially his short stories, are not to be missed. His prose is smooth, clean, and able to hold complexity, without making the reader feel like he’s just survived a complex sentence.

Like Achebe’s clean descriptions, Edel Rodriguez’ illustrations add to the beauty of this new publication. In orange, brown, and white, Rodriguez shows us fish of all sizes, a coin found by a little boy, women carrying fruits and vegetables home from the market. These illustrations are simple enough to live alongside the reader’s imagination. They do not fight with you. They provide a complementary warmth to Achebe’s story.

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