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The books of the professor, writer and editor Jerry Craven are always a surprising joy. A well-traveled man of letters and adventure who has taught in places as far-flung as Malaysia and Azerbaijan (as well as the wilds of Waco and Beaumont), Craven manages to blend almost mystical awe with whimsical bemusement, especially when he deposits the most unlikely figures in the heart of strange surroundings.

Craven’s latest novel, The Wild Part, takes the 1950s Venezuela he explored so thrillingly in his memoirSaving a Songbird and fictionalizes his youthful adventures in that country. The story begins in medias res as 11-year-old Don Seal, whose family moved to South America pursuing work opportunities, sneaks into the back of a truck with his friend Rosita, hoping to simply hitch a ride to a neighboring village to see old bones and shrunken heads.

The driver, however, heads in a very different direction, taking them deep into the jungle. Both excited at the adventure and anxious to get back to their own town, the pair set off on an amazing trek across the wild part of Venezuela. Don, who narrates the tale, is a brave boy and keen observer, but he is naïve and less knowledgeable about the country than Rosita, a sharp and fiery girl who saves them both on more than one occasion.

Along the way they run into miners and villagers warring over gold who think Don is the long-lost son of their murdered patrón; they steal a canoe to escape and soon find themselves drifting idyllically down a broad river. Though the jungle is fraught with danger (piranhas, bats, spiders, snakes, waterfalls), Don and Rosita revel in the beauty and freedom it affords them for a few days, naked and unencumbered by adult nonsense, debating their place in the universe and the nature of god as they live off the land.

Eventually, of course, they emerge into civilization again, getting caught up in the antics of Craven’s trademark oddballs (Sylvia, the bruja whose magic might just be real; an American missionary and killer; a snake-oil Texan). Confronted with questions of faith, reality, good and evil, the children learn the difficult, duplicitous nature of the world. “Believing is the only thing that makes something true,” but “not believing in [bad things] won’t make them go away.”

A thoughtful, lush novel replete with beautiful writing, suspense, humor, feminism and profundity, The Wild Part will appeal to both adults and thoughtful young people. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with which it has much in common, Craven’s book, though featuring children as protagonists, is more than just an adventure story: it is a genuine literary exploration of the relationship of human beings to god, nature, and one another.

David Bowles is an award-winning translator and author. You can contact him at www.davidbowles.us

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