Fifteen-year-old Karen Herber is exactly where she wants to be—in the Nicaraguan rainforest with a volunteer medical team. What she had not expected was a hurricane collapsing a bridge to wipe out her team and a mudslide burying a village. Only a Nicaraguan six-year-old girl and a forty-four-year-old woman with both arms broken survive the mudslide. Then she finds that Jaydon Bonner survived, a privileged, arrogant seventeen-year-old American tenderfoot. Academic and confidence concerns are already dragging Karen down and she was tagged a “weak leader” in Outward Bound School. Her doctor parents are pushing her into a medical career, of which she’s uncertain. Less than fluent in Spanish, but an experienced backpacker, the reluctant leader is challenged by Nature, animals, desperate men and her fellow survivors’ mistrust and cultural differences. Their only path to salvation is a risky boat trip down a rainforest river, 150 miles to the mysterious Mosquito Coast. Karen soon finds her companions’ experiences, so different from her own, invaluable with each deadly encounter forging a closer bond between them. Through all the danger, “Jay” is there and manages to come though.
Note: I was provided a copy of this book for review
Tears of the River brings you the unexpected and it does it with style, realism, authenticity, and great characters. This is a wonderful story, Rottman pulls you in from the start with the characters and narrative and you find yourself never wanting to put the book down. There is also a great adventure tone that grabs you and is filled with the uncertainty of survival and the ongoing threat of failure that drives not only the characters, but the reader as you keep reading to see what else could possibly happen to them.
The story is told by Karen, an excellent move by Rottman because you get a great sense of who she is and the situation through her eyes and thoughts. She is also a great protagonist. She is knowledgeable about a lot of things; she does what’s right and uses her knowledge without being cocky, arrogant, or unlikable. She knows more than she thinks but she doesn’t know everything which shows great contrast and makes her very human instead of being unbelievable and too good at everything. You also forget she is only fifteen, and while she can replicate the skills and information she has been taught there are the pressures of the situation that seep in, there is only so much information can help when being as young as she is, coupled with the general shock of the whole experience before you break. Karen even mentions that she is saving her break down for later, she is pushing through with determination, and you sometimes see the cracks forming, it only makes her even better.
In a story so adventurous it is also wonderfully realistic. Karen is under no delusions about how tough it is going to be, no minor inconveniences like camping and a lot of work, but she is prepared for a lot of things. She has experience, she has read and seen a lot, and she has had practice in various situations, but while she knows what to do, she lacks confidence in her abilities. This does not deter her and she is determined to succeed regardless which makes her think on her feet and try anything, only adding to her character in my opinion. And while she claims she is not a leader you only have to watch as she pulls herself together to save not only herself but those around her. She doesn’t see just how much of a leader she is, but she does a wonderful job.
There are other key characters besides Karen: Jay is a seventeen year old from America, and there are two people from the village, forty four year old Tia, and six year old Lomara, each bringing their unique personalities to the story. With the language barrier with Tia and Lomara you only really grasp their personalities in how they act and react around Karen, while Jay is a lot more forward.
Jay starts out as being very arrogant and spoilt and I would have thought he would be a better person after being saved but it seems even accidents can’t change personality. Even so, I thought it would make him realise where he was and the situation they were in and be a lot less unhelpful. Personally I think he’s jealous. After awhile you watch him with Karen, what he says and does and it seems like he may even be a little embarrassed. He mentions later that he doesn’t know how to do anything with a slight ashamed tone but also with a sense of admiration for what Karen can do. The culture of the Nicaraguan people is that women don’t do certain things, certainly not all the things Karen is trying to do, and men are the strong ones who have their role to play in society, making Karen a constant target for Tia’s disapproval. But even when Karen asks for Jay to help he can’t, he has never done anything to help in the situations they have found themselves. This doesn’t excuse his behaviour in the beginning but by the end you understand him a bit more, he’s embarrassed and jealous watching her do the things she does and hearing how knowledgeable she is. Even Tia, an early and ongoing critic of Karen, slowly learns Karen is more than capable.
Due to the mixture of American and Nicaraguan characters there is a continual switch between English and Spanish which actually works really well. Working with a language barrier of two characters can be hard, especially in having to continually translate not just for the reader but also for the other characters. The format and style in which Rottman solved this problem was great and it never jarred or felt out of place, it allowed you to keep reading uninterrupted by the switching languages.
While there isn’t a high level of action or suspense, it is not without its drama in some form and Rottman makes even the menial seem interesting. The writing style is wonderful and clever because without needing it to be filled with suspense and a continual read of drama on every page there is more an ongoing interest and intrigue in where they will go and what they will do, you sort of marvel at how this little band of people survive and try to rescue themselves. There are so many obstacles they face on their journey, different things that have varying levels of danger and threats but you also don’t wait for bad things to happen either. Its great writing that only adds to the feeling of authenticity.
The writing is clever as well in that we often find out what we need to know long before we knew we needed it. Karen’s survival knowledge and her skills are explained creatively early on, as is her stamina, her description, and history, meaning that there is no need to stop a key moment in a scene to explain why she knows what she does, or how she is able to do these things, you just accept that she can because you know in the back of your mind that she had done the training, was taught a skill. It’s something that I really liked because it meant the crucial moments weren’t broken up, and it was very natural in how it was explained, never feeling like we took time from the story to explain everything.
Having Karen as the narrator made this work well, and with her mind wandering and connecting current experiences to those she had done before reads like we are inside her mind, and we are, we see her think things through and watch her mind connect it to other things.
Without spoilers, I will say I love how Karen is written through the whole book, and the others, but I especially loved her at the end. Rottman portrays her exhaustion and weariness well, she has spent all her energy trying to save these people and herself, jumping between two languages and by the end of it she doesn’t know which one she is supposed to speak anymore. She is running on autopilot and it’s brilliant to read, to watch her on the verge of crumbling into a heap but still trying to make sure everyone is ok. The fatigue and injuries are portrayed so well and you feel what she goes through.
I came out of being fully immersed in this novel realising that at every turn I was worried that their biggest obstacle would be if they lost the boat but Rottman shows there is so much more than possibly losing a boat to worry about. There is logic, real experiences and real consequences and Rottman shows that anything is possible. My favourite quote comes from Karen and it sums up this story brilliantly: “You can do anything, once you realise you have to.” That also sums up Karen’s character really well, and while she starts off with doubts about her leadership skills and chances of saving everyone, there is a wonderful change in her character as the determination comes through and she realises she has to, no matter what.
The slogan for the publisher Taliesin Publishing says “Discover authors and stories that echo in your heart long after the book is closed” and this is so true for Tears of the River. It is a story that I adored experiencing and one that will stay with me for a long time and one I look forward to rereading one day.
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