Journeys in search of home

19th December 2003 at 00:00
Running Home. By Teresa Doran. The Chicken House pound;10.99

The Garbage King. By Elizabeth Laird. Macmillan pound;9.99

Esperanza Rising. By Pam Muzoz Ryan. The Chicken House pound;5.99

Fish. By L S Matthews,. Hodder pound;4.99

Four tales of children on the run to a new life will keep eager readers occupied over Christmas, writes Linda Newbery

Fictional children always have to get rid of their parents if they want to prove their own resourcefulness. It takes Teresa Doran just two pages to orphan her main characters in a violent domestic shooting in a Cornish holiday home.

As the children have previously been taken into care, 12-year-old Caitlin's instinct is to take charge of younger sister Effie and head for the County Clare grandparents who have always provided stability. En route they are picked up by travellers, hitch illicit lifts, and dodge would-be captors who have seen their photographs on newspaper front pages. The story is full of incident, and has as happy an ending as circumstances permit, though with the sense that the sisters have much to assimilate and understand.

Children are on the run in The Garbage King, too: this time in the streets of Addis Ababa and the surrounding country. Circumstances bring together two boys from very different backgrounds: newly-orphaned Mamo, abducted and sold as a farm worker before escaping back to the city, and wealthy Dani, who has run away from his harsh father. Both learn to scavenge a living with a gang of street children, and Dani, in particular, helpless and passive at first, learns not only how to survive but also how to stand up to the father with whom he's eventually reunited.

It's an engaging and engrossing story, plunging the reader into a setting where nothing can be taken for granted. Although Mamo and Dani find more settled lives, both strengthened by their experiences, the ending leaves no doubt that large numbers of children in Ethiopia's capital have no choice but to beg for a living.

Elizabeth Laird's Dani learns the truth of a Mexican proverb quoted at the beginning of Esperanza Rising: "The rich person is richer when he becomes poor, than the poor person when he becomes rich." So does Esperanza, in this riches-to-rags story. She is the daughter of a wealthy Mexican landowner, but she and her mother are ousted following her father's murder by bandits. They flee across the border to California, find work on a farm camp and learn to measure the year by the fruit and vegetables in season: melons, asparagus, peaches.

There are tensions here, too, as it's the time of the Great Depression, with strikes, round-ups, and deportations to Mexico.

The story has the feel of a morality fable, with characterisation simple to the point of flatness; Esperanza, based on the author's grandmother, learns to be patient, generous and diligent, and is rewarded with the love of her childhood sweetheart, Miguel.

Fish, recent winner of the Kathleen Fidler Award for a first novel for eight to 12-year-olds, also involves a border crossing. "Tiger" (not his real name, and no one else is named, nor the hostile country where the story is set) has both parents (former aid-workers, now refugees themselves) but little else. The family heads for safety, escorted by a mysterious "Guide" and his patient but heroic donkey, in a story reminiscent of those in which travellers over mountains or through deserts sense an extra presence beside them.

When Tiger finds a fish struggling for breath in a mud pool, he is determined to carry it to safety. Survival of fish and humans is dramatically threatened as the journey through muddy river-beds and over mountain passes becomes ever more hazardous. The scene-setting, because of the vagueness of the location, is sketchy; but the fable-like quality of the telling has a subdued power.

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