Book review

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell (2017)

Have you ever had to dig down deep inside yourself to find the strength to carry on with something? Or worried that if you fail at some task you might let others down? Like say, holding your nerve to take an important exam, or performing properly at the top of your game for a school team. It’s hard, to be frightened and still carry on. That’s what it’s like for Fred and Con and Lila and Max in this story. What happens to these four children is truly terrible. They are passengers in a small aircraft flying over the Amazon jungle in South America. When the plane crashes and the pilot is killed they find themselves completely alone, and a long long way from home. No adults to sort things out for them. If they don’t make the effort, no one else will. They don’t exactly need a leader. They have to learn to work together and to trust each other. They have to learn what each of them is good at, and they still need to do all the stuff that none of them is good at. If they can do all that, they might not die. Fred starts them off:

‘One of my books said you can eat the insects that eat cocoa pods.’
‘What book?’
‘Just a book about explorers.’ It was a book about Percy Fawcett, a man who had come to the amazon in search of golden cities. It was the kind of book that left you breathless and eye-stretched.

Lila knows a little bit about plants and animals in the jungle. She forages and finds something:

‘Did you find food?’ asked Con.
‘Yes,’ she said. Then her honesty got the better of her and she added, ‘Almost.’ She opened her improvised sack and poured out dozens of pods on to the grass.

Fred is getting desperate. He inspects the haul:

Fred picked up one of the pods; there were two holes in the top. ‘There’s something in here.’ He tried to shake the something out, but it didn’t come. He poked a stick into a hole and shook it again, and a fat little grub, two centimetres long, tipped out on to his palm.
‘That’s it!’ said Lila. ‘That’s the grub! You can eat it!’
‘Oh good,’ lied Fred. The grub lay on his hand: it didn’t move, but seemed to be pulsating slightly. He sniffed it.
‘Go on,’ said Con. ‘It was your idea.’

He’s pretty brave. He bites the grub in half, chews with difficulty and (if you believe this you’ll believe anything) pronounces it a tiny bit like chocolate. They decide to fry the mashed grubs on a stone and make chocolate pancakes. Sort of.

‘Sort of,’ said Con. ‘Really quite amazingly sort of.

Actually, they’ll be roasting tarantulas on sticks before the end of this adventure. You’ve got to be desperate really, haven’t you?:

‘I love them.’ Max spoke with half a spider leg hanging out of his mouth. ‘They should sell them at the pantomime, with the ice creams.’

Well, they get to know each other by working together. They pool their ideas and their courage and painstakingly inch their way to an understanding of what needs to be done. They find the Amazon river which is a good start and they make a raft. Even more importantly, they find a map hidden up a tree. Someone appears to have been there before them! They can only hope that the someone who drew the map was a proper explorer who knew what he was doing because the children decide to follow the map.

If you want to know where the map leads them you will have to read the book. I can tell you it is both better and worse than they might have wished for. They do get the help they need but it’s far short of what they want. They all have to be extraordinarily brave for a little bit longer, and the thing about being brave is, no one else can do it for you. You actually have to do it yourself.

‘When you get home, tell them how large the world is, and how green. And tell them that the beauty of the world makes demands on you. They will need reminding. If you believe the world is small and tawdry, it is easier to be so yourself. But the world is so tall and so beautiful a place.
‘And all of you – do not forget that, lost out here, you were brave even in your sleep. Do not forget to take risks. Standing ovations await your bravery.’
Con swallowed. ‘But I’m afraid,’ she whispered.
The explorer nodded, scarred and dusty and matter-of-fact. ‘You are right to be afraid. Be brave anyway.’

And that is the other important theme running through this book. In our own way we are all explorers, just making our way through life. It is a beautiful, beautiful world. Spoil nothing. Leave it as you find it. Pristine. For the next generation of explorers who will certainly come after you.

What can I read next?

I love Katherine Rundell’s storytelling style...everything is a teeny bit epic. If you enjoy The Explorer you will definitely enjoy her other titles:

If you develop a taste for exploring the Amazon after reading this book you might like to have a look at this lovely story by Eva Ibbotson:

Piers Torday has written an enjoyable trilogy of epic, dangerous modern day fairy tales with an eye to saving the planet:

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