Sunday, November 11, 2007

Survivors on a Raft

By the end of the first chapter of Beverley Naidoo's stunning novel, The Other Side of Truth, the main character, twelve-year-old Sade, and her younger brother, Femi, have already witnessed unspeakable horrors.

Late for school, Sade is putting her books into her schoolbag when she hears her mother's screams, followed by two sharp cracks--gunshots--that end up shattering her world, leaving her mother dead and her father, a Nigerian journalist who refuses to shy away from the truth, forced to send his children secretly to England for their own safety.

Here's how Naidoo ends the first chapter:
So Mama had tried to warn Papa after all. Privately, out of the children's hearing. Yes, that would have been her way. And suddenly great awful sobs rose up inside Sade, shaking her, making her tremble. She heard her own strange sounds as she desperately sucked in gasps of air, feeling Femi stiff and silent beside her. Uncle Tunde slipped from the room, closing the door behind him on three figures clasped together like survivors on a tiny raft.
That image--three figures like survivors on a raft--sets the emotional tone of the story that follows as Sade and her brother set out on their journey to safety, their fate determined by the favorable or unfavorable currents that they may encounter along the way, their survival depending on luck--an unexpected wind, a sudden downpour--and their ability to use their wits to stay afloat.

The story unfolds like a maze through which the children have to find their way, each step bringing them more difficulties and hardships. From the moment the children are whisked to the airport, hidden under a blanket in the back seat of their uncle's car, and helped out of the country by a woman paid to smuggle them through customs once they arrive in England, their lives bob and weave like a raft on the surface of the sea, and the reader waits for that terrible moment when the raft will capsize... or make it through another wave.

But the children's troubles only increase once they reach England. Abandoned by the woman who was hired to bring them to meet another uncle living in England, Sade and Femi try without success to reach him on their own, only to find themselves penniless and alone in a strange country.

Naidoo doesn't make it easy for the children. Each step is fraught with danger. And just when the reader feels the children may be safe, having endured questioning by the police after a robbery and being placed in a foster home, the stakes change. Sade starts a new school and has to face the threats of bullies at the same time that she is trying to cope with the sudden loss of her mother and the painful separation from her father and all that she knows as familiar.

Most of all, Sade's worried about the truth... fearing if she tells her new foster mother and father her real name, she may unwittingly place her father's life in danger in Nigeria.

When she learns that her father has escaped from Nigeria, too, and is being held in a British detention center because he used a false passport (like them) to enter the country, Sade has to figure out a way to help him... and bring their family together again.

By the end of the novel, more than two hundred pages after first introducing the image of the raft to readers, this is how Naidoo brings the story to a close:
Although Sade felt her own eyes pricking slightly, she somehow knew that this time she was not going to cry. She seemed to have cried so many tears already in the past few weeks. Today it was Femi's turn. She knelt next to Papa, waiting for her brother's sobs to subside. Auntie Grace, Uncle Roy and Uncle Dele slipped quietly out of the room. She and Femi were alone with Papa for the first time since Uncle Tunde had left them together in Papa's study on the day Mama died. That day they were like three survivors clinging to each other, stranded on a tiny raft. Since then they had been flung apart, thrown into so many dangerous rapids. Yet here they were, having finally reached the same shore. Perhaps in a few months they were going to be pushed away again but, for the moment, it was enough that they were together again.
Again, Naidoo brings in the image of the raft, though this time, instead of setting out on the raft together, they have found their way through dangerous rapids to a different shore. It's a powerful image, one that brings the reader into the emotional currents that Sade must swim through over the course of this tragic tale of loss and survival.

As you embark on your own tales, try using powerful images to deepen a reader's experience of your character's struggle, and remember to throw your characters into a series of dangerous rapids.

Then, like Naidoo, show them struggling to reach the distant shore.

For more information about Beverley Naidoo, visit her website:

And for interviews with Naidoo, check out:


Jack said...

I've been reading a few essays on story endings and this one seems to be a good ending. It completes the tensions constructed for the story, and yet, like life, leaves a sense of further journeys to come.

Bruce said...

And it's interesting, isn't it, how Naidoo planted the seeds for her ending at the very beginning of her story?