Chike and the River
By Chinua Achebe
Review by Deatra Haime Anderson
Originally published in South Africa in 1966, Chinua Achebe’s children’s book Chike and the River finally makes its debut here in the United States. Part escapade, part fable, it is a simple but engaging story of 11-year old Chike who struggles to adapt to city life when he moves from the village of Umuofia to the big city of Onitsha to live with his uncle, a stern, unloving man. At the heart of Chike’s transformation is his curiosity about the Niger River and his deep desire to cross it and experience the seductively beckoning city of Asaba on the other side.
And here is where old world meets new because to get to the other side of the river, Chike must take a ferry, which cost sixpence each way, more money than he’s ever held in his hand. As he hatches scheme after scheme to earn what he needs, Chike begins to explore his new surroundings while adjusting to the odd rules of this new way of life. “In Umuofia every thief was known, but here [in Onitsha] even people who lived under the same roof were strangers to one another. Chike was told by his uncle’s servant that sometimes a man died in one room and his neighbor in the next room would be playing his gramophone. It was all very strange.”
He also enlists the help of his new, mischievous schoolmates, including one called S.M.O.G. who seems wise beyond his years. “Why,” S.M.O.G. asks, “should we live by the River Niger and then wash our hands with spittle?” Chike thinks this is quite convincing and agrees to go on a fruitless odyssey to see a “money-doubler” capable of turning money into more money.
Achebe, author of the seminal Things Fall Apart (also set in the village of Umuofia), is clearly on a mission in this tale. Supposedly, he was dismayed that the books in his daughter’s school were all written by Europeans so wrote Chike and the River to give her characters she could relate to. He also had another motive: to teach through Chike’s story by telling it from the perspective of an adult trying to mold how children should navigate the world; unfortunately, the result is occasionally clumsy and transparent. At one point, three of Chike’s classmates are fooled by a trader into taking “brain pills” that would help them remember what they read for their exams but they started “behaving like mad people and had to be rushed to the hospital.” They were okay but so shaken by the experience they failed the exams anyway.
In the end, Chike does indeed cross the river, only to discover that even though the shining city of Asaba isn’t what he expects, it all ends better than he ever imagined. Why? Because, as in all good folktales, Achebe wants us to know that a good heart, paired with curiosity and determination, can yield results beyond our greatest dreams.
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