Renee Mihulka – Children's Book Reviews & Writer

Into the River



OVERALL: 4 Stars

Concept:4.5 Stars
Characters:4 Stars
Plot:3.5 Stars
Writing:4.5 Stars
Ted Dawe
Random House


WARNING: This book was banned in New Zealand. Until Oct 2015 it was illegal to supply, display or distribute the book in any way in New Zealand. I would not recommend this book for anyone under the age of 15.

Description: This confronting YA is, at it’s core, a book about identity and expectation. It follows a young Maori boy’s right of passage as he struggles with his identity and the expectations thrust upon him by family, friends, race and culture.

Te Arepa earns a scholarship to an exclusive boarding school far from the town he was raised in. Leaving his beloved Grandfather behind he sets out to do his best in this alien environment but soon finds himself warring with his Maori identity and the need to fit in to survive. His friendship with a privileged but neglected, white boy adds to his conflict as Steph leads the Arepa down paths he might not otherwise have strayed.

This book has many drug and sex references and will be confronting for many people. It is not meant to be a book you like, (indeed my own initial reaction was a sense of discomfort and disapproval), but rather a book that challenges your understanding of privilege and race. It creeps slowly under your skin until you find yourself quietly admiring it.

Concept: Ted Dawe has managed to create a many layered coming of age story that tackles the weighty issues of race, indigenous issues, privilege, expectation, identity, sex and drugs. And he has done a pretty good job of it.

Characters: The main character, Te Arepa, is a bit of a closed book. Much of the time I was left wondering what he really felt because his opinions seemed to be influenced so easily by the stronger personalities around him. He clearly struggles with trying to find his place in the world and with deciding what he values. His Grandfather and Steph are much stronger characters, Steph in particular is complex and interesting and by the end of the book I was at pains to decide whether I hated him or felt sorry for him.  On the whole, the characters were believable and multifaceted and I found myself thinking about their choices and for the most part, understanding their motivations even though I often didn’t identify with them.

Plot: The story unfolds in waves. I found some parts – especially the times he goes back to his home during the holidays – lacked purpose and emphasis, but on the whole the narrative was engaging and I felt myself willingly sucked into Te Arepa’s escalating conflicts. I have to admit that I did find parts very confronting and being a bit of a sheltered prude, hard to fathom, however for the most part, Dawe is able to use these instances to better highlight the motivations and issues facing his characters.

Writing: This is a very well written book. At times, the prose fell into a strong literary style that I found detracted from rather than supported the story, but overall it was a clever and  engaging. This book was awarded the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year prize and won first prize in the Young Adult category in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

PARENTS: As I have highlighted in the warning above, this is not a book I would give to a child under 15. The book contains sex, drugs and abuse and so if you are worried about your child reading material of this sort, then this is not a book they should explore. On the other hand, many of the issues raised in this book are ones that kids of this age may face and so in this way the book can be a great conversation starter. I would very much recommend parents also read this book so they can really get a handle on the issues, because the ending especially could be interpreted by teens as heroic, whilst I dare say most parents might find Te Arepa’s actions horrific. (I certainly couldn’t relate to them!)

Things to ask and discuss: ( I am assuming with this set of questions that you (the parent) have read the book)

1) Talk about the expectations that Te Arepa faces throughout the book and how they weigh him down. These expectations come from his Grandfather, his Maori culture, his friendships, especially with Steph, and the private school environment.

2) I think one of the most interesting moments in the book is the last night at the Drama camp. That night Devon has sexual encounters with two different girls and both end quite differently. Talk about these encounters with your teen. What is their view of Devon’s behaviour? Of the girls behaviour? Talk about his encounter with Sina in particular. Did he end up forcing her? Why do you think she changed her mind or even went along with it in the first place? What do you make of his statement later “He wondered whether this had been something they planned before they came out (girls were such schemers).”

3) There was a lot of skirting around the relationship between Steph and Willie. Talk about what you thought was really going on there. Was Wille taking advantage of Steph? Was his behaviour appropriate?

4) Steph was a master manipulator. How did he manipulate the people around him? How did he manipulate Devon? What was his purpose in manipulating Briggs?

5) Devon’s decisions at the end of the book were major and serious. Discuss his decision to forgo his scholarship as well as his decision to walk away from his life in an attempt to become ‘free’. Talk about the factors that drove him to this decision. Do you think he made the right decision? Why? What should/could he have done instead?


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