The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: A Review

I love reading children's books. I loved reading them as a child, and when I became an adult, I still liked to read them, even before I had children of my own. I read them to my little brother. I read them to other people's children, and I read them by myself. But... I don't like all children's books. I'm very picky, and many books that other people find "touching" and "heart-warming" chill me to the bone.

When my daughter was three or four, and Bow was still a baby, I had a friend who came to stay for a while with her daughter. We arranged special times when we would get together and read children's books to all the children in the household. Once, my friend bought a beautiful shiny, new book with full color illustrations that was supposed to tell a heart warming story about "sharing." I don't remember the name of the book or the author, but I remember being horrified by the message. It was all about a rich person being humbled and tricked or forced into giving away things belonging to him, because the poor needed them more.

It doesn't really matter what book it was, or what the details of the story involved. We've seen this time and time again in literature, haven't we? I told my friend that I didn't like the book because of its socialist message. She said that she really hadn't given the message much thought. It was just a children's book, after all.

There's no such thing as just a children's book. It's either a good book, or it's not. And children deserve to be dealt with honestly, even if the issue is poverty.

So then I remembered that I had a book on my shelf that was written for children, was beautiful to read aloud, and dealt with poverty in a way that is not offensive to anybody. That book is Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Secret River. I took it out and read it aloud, to my friend and the children assembled. And if you want to know how it starts, then play the video I've embedded below.

A Beginning Excerpt from The Secret River

Here is the illustration from the page facing the words: "Calpurnia is a little girl and Buggy-horse is her dog.
Here is the illustration from the page facing the words: "Calpurnia is a little girl and Buggy-horse is her dog. | Source

Hard Times and How to Deal With Them

Calpurnia's father announces that hard times have come to the forest. Hard times are especially hard for poor people. Calpurnia asks: "Are we poor people? I don't feel poor." Calpurnia's father says that they are. He makes a living catching fish and selling them to other poor people. Now there are no fish, and hard times have come to the forest.

Calpurnia decides to try her hand at solving the problem by finding a place where there are plenty of fish to catch. She and her dog Buggyhorse set out on a long journey. They consult with the wise woman of the forest, who tells them how to go about finding the Secret River. On the way there and back, they come across a lot of other animals who are also hungry and are hunting for something to eat. It occurs to Calpurnia and Buggyhorse that they themselves might make a tasty morsel for somebody else to eat.

Eventually, they find the Secret River, catch plenty of fish, use them to bribe some of the animals that they meet on the way back, and so keep the majority of their catch and their lives intact. Calpurnia repays her debt to Mother Albirtha by giving her one of the fish. And she brings back the rest of the fish for her father to sell.

Illustration for "The Secret River" by Leonard Weisgard

This is one of the magically evocative illustrations in my copy of " The Secret River". (I imported this image from B. Streetman's blog on vintage books.)
This is one of the magically evocative illustrations in my copy of " The Secret River". (I imported this image from B. Streetman's blog on vintage books.) | Source
Bow enjoys reading "The Secret River" by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Bow enjoys reading "The Secret River" by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings | Source

Bow reads "The Secret River"

It's a vintage book, and it smells good, too!
It's a vintage book, and it smells good, too! | Source

"The Secret River" as read by Bow

Bow reads on
Bow reads on | Source

Bow relaxes with "The Secret River"

Relaxing with The Secret River
Relaxing with The Secret River | Source

How Hard Times Ended in the Forest

Remember, many people in the forest were hungry. But Calpurnia's father did not give the fish away. He sold them:

"A man who had not had anything to eat for a long time bought the first catfish. He said he would pay for it as soon as he had eaten it and had earned money for a day's work, for he had been too weak from hunger to work. A woman who had not had anything to eat for a long time bought the second catfish, and said she would pay for it as soon as she had eaten it and earned money for a day's work, for she had been too weak from hunger to work. All the people from the forest bought the catfish and ate them and felt strong again and went out into the world and found work to do. They earned money, and that night they all paid Calpurnia's father for the catfish and had money to spare. Mother Albirtha had six customers in her shop. Calpurnia's father had a big pile of money. And so hard times in the forest turned to soft times."

Life feeds on Life and Everybody Pays Their Share

However simplified, this is a story about the relationship between man and nature, and also the relationships between and among people. When hard times came to the forest, there was no paternalistic Santa Claus figure to come and bail people out. There was also no finger pointing and blaming, and nobody thought that they were poor because somebody else was rich. Instead, Calpurnia and Buggyhorse went to look for food in the only place that food comes from: Nature. Life comes from other life and feeds on life. Calpurnia is reverent toward all living things, and she recognizes that she takes the lives of the fish she is catching. She also understands that panthers have to make a living, too, and that little girls and dogs would make a panther a tasty meal. This is not a story that sidesteps the hard choices we all face in life, or the heart break involved in killing in order to live. But it is also not an ugly story. The Secret River allows every being his own dignity and his moment in the sun. Hungry people are fed, but nobody gets a handout, and everybody pays for their food. Because everyone goes out and does something productive, at the end of the day, everyone is better off.

A Great Book for Children

Especially at Christmas time, we are inundated by books that preach taking without giving (Santa Claus) or giving without taking (forced charity). It's something to be thankful for that there are still books available for children that explain the give and take of life in a way that anyone can understand.

I highly recommend Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Secret River, and I am happy to acknowledge my intellectual debt to her for having written this book. And the only way I know to repay the debt is with my own small contribution here on Hubpages, and in the books that I myself am writing and publishing. The debts that we owe to our predecessors are debts that we cannot pay back. We can only try to pay them forward.

Copyright 2010 Aya Katz

A stamp commemorating Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was issued by the United States Postal Service 2n 2008
A stamp commemorating Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was issued by the United States Postal Service 2n 2008 | Source

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Comments 4 comments

justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas

It is so important to read aloud to children and to read stories that are interesting, thought and conversation provoking, and complex. Nice choice! :)


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Suzanne! I love reading out loud to children, and The Secret River is a book that really lends itself to that.


MobyWho profile image

MobyWho 4 years ago from Burlington VT

Thank you for refreshing my Cross Creek, FL memories. I was lucky that my mother worshiped MKR, and read all her books to me as a child. In the late '30s - early '40s, we were spending some time in Citrus County and came to love the woods and marshes so typical of that area.

You are so right about the message in this particular story, and the positive delivery employed.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 4 years ago from The Ozarks Author

MobyWho, thanks for your comments and for sharing your personal memories of Cross Creek. I'm glad we agree about The Secret River and its message.

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