Book Review by Aarene Storms: Into the River

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Into the River by Ted Dawe

Te Arepa Santos lives with his grandfather Ra, surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles, descendants of a Maori woman who married a heroic Spanish pirate.

The day that Te Arepa encounters the giant eel in a haunted stream, his life changes. Soon Te Arepa, like his piratical ancestor Diego Santos, will leave his family home and his traditions to attend an exclusive boy's boarding school in Auckland.

Into the River was the first book ever to be banned in New Zealand, although that country has much stricter "decency standards" than we have here in America.

The book wasn't even banned when it was first published; actually, it spent two years picking up prestigious awards like the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year first.

Then it got rated "for mature readers ages 14+". Then it was banned entirely: not available for sale to any reader in New Zealand at all (although sales of the international Kindle edition went up as readers circumvented the ban).

Why all the fuss? That's what I wondered. So I read it.

The story contains sexual situations -- including naked body parts, masturbation and intercourse -- on the page. There is cussing, and drug use. There is homosexuality, bullying, underage drinking, suicide, lawless behavior and rampant racism.

My verdict: the censors in New Zealand really need to get out more.

In other words, Into the River contains nothing we haven't seen in teen lit before. Why this particular book bothered the outspoken members of Family First, I cannot say.

Unfortunately for my feelings of unfettered righteousness, I did not love the book.

Not because I object to sexual content in teen books (obviously) but rather because I thought that the main character had tremendous potential as a young Maori man entering Western society ... and he quickly turned as mainstream as the bullies around him.


While the first half of the book raced along with the glory of Maori words footnoted on each page, the last half trudged inexorably towards the main character's expulsion from school.

Buy this to diversify your collections, or to demonstrate the power of censorship (sales soared!), but if you want to read a great coming-of-age story of Maori New Zealand, you may have to write it yourself.

The events may not have happened; still, the story is true.  --R. Silvern

Aarene Storms, youth services librarian
Richmond Beach and Lake Forest Park Libraries, KCLS


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