Odyssey from River Bend, by Tom McGowen – Book Review By Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
“Here is another old review, fixed up the way that it should be published.”
Odyssey from River Bend, by Tom McGowen.
Boston, Little, Brown and Company, April 1975, hardcover $5.95 (ix + 166 pages).
This was a minor children’s/Young Adult fantasy in 1975, but it is notable as one of the first novels to promote the theme of talking animals inheriting the earth after mankind has become extinct through its own mismanagement of the environment.
“It was an old village. Many generations of animals had been born, lived, and died in it. Its name was Jallakragga, which in the language of the animals meant ‘river bend.’
Around the entire village was a stout wall made of logs that had been cut and trimmed by the beaver builders, stuck upright in the ground, and plastered over with clay from the riverbank. The wall formed an irregular circle, and at several places along its length were watchtowers. From these, day and night, the wolf soldiers peered down, alert for any sign of the wandering bands of weasels or wildcats that roamed the forest and sometimes attacked villages. In the part of the wall that faced the great, dim mass of the forest there was a gateway, with a wide door made of thick logs. This door was kept closed and barred during the hours of darkness, and the logs were covered with carved, frightening faces, to scare away any wandering ghosts or wicked spirits that might try to enter.” (pgs. 3-4)
Jikatik and Ikatibby, two raccoon children foraging for food in the nearby forest in autumn, find an ancient object exposed where the river has undercut the bank.
“‘It’s from the Long Ago time!’ Jik gasped. ‘A thing that the Long Ago Ones made!’
They were both half-minded to scurry away as fast as they could. All the stories they had ever heard came crowding into their heads; stories of other animals who had found Long Ago things, and had been put under terrifying magic spells, or had been attacked by horrible monsters. For the Long Ago Ones had been mighty wizards with strange and terrible powers, and their magic sometimes still clung to the things that were left over from the days when they had ruled the world.” (p. 9)
The two bring it to Kippatuk the Wise, River Bend’s elderly badger savant, who pries it open and finds a book of the Long Ago Ones inside. Kipp tries all during the harsh winter that follows to decipher the book, while the village battles sickness and desperately tries to make its food stores last until spring. He appears at the first village council meeting after the winter:
“The other animals glanced at one another. Chuffamup, the beaver who was the village record keeper said, ‘But that’s just the way things are, Kipp. Long winters and no rain and toothaches and sickness and fleas – we can’t do anything about those things!’
‘The Long Ago Ones, if the legends are true, had no hunger or pain or sickness or misery,’ Kipp answered, eyeing the beaver. ‘They had power over the world and the wicked spirits that cause us so much trouble. You know what the legends say; they lived lifetimes that were many times longer than ours, and were happy every day! They had wonderful food, even more than they needed. They had magic!’
‘Well, the Long Ago Ones were the Long Ago Ones, and we are we, and we don’t have their magic!’ Chuffamup declared. ‘Why talk about such things, Kippachuk? They cannot be.’
‘Yes they can,’ said Kipp softly. ‘I think we can learn the magic of the Long Ago Ones, Chuff. I think I know how it can be done!’” (pgs. 26-27)
Kipp has figured out enough of the ancient book to feel sure that it shows where a hidden treasury of the Long Ago Ones’ magic is, in the Haunted Land where they lived ages ago. He wants to search for it. The other animals are horrified by the thought of going into the Haunted Land:
“‘it’s the most terrible place in the world! It’s a place of animal-eating ghosts and monsters, where the air is a foul poison and the land is black and dead!’” (p. 28)
Despite the conviction of most villagers that Kipp is just committing suicide – or worse, that he may anger the spirits of the Long Ago Ones who will come to River Bend for vengeance – several of the younger animals who are bored with their narrow, superstitious life decide to accompany Kipp, to protect him and to see the world. By the time he is ready to start, Kipp is head of an expedition that includes Arwheek the rat, Ushkee the otter, and Riff the wolf.
The reader will have guessed from the start that the Long Ago Ones were humans. The animals do not know what to expect as they set out:
“‘I wonder if the Long Ago Ones had some way of keeping their fur dry on rainy days?’ Arwheek grumbled, slogging along with his head and shoulders covered by his food bag.
‘I’m not sure they had fur,’ Kipp told him. ‘But I am sure they had some way of keeping rain off themselves.’
‘No fur?’ Riff was incredulous. ‘Were they like snakes, then, with smooth, scaly skins?’
‘I really do not know,’ the badger answered. ‘I’ve seen pictures of them; there were many pictures in the Long Ago book. But the pictures made no sense to my eyes. It seemed almost as if the Long Ago Ones had different shapes at different times. Sometimes they seemed to have a kind of fur on their bodies and sometimes not. It’s very odd.’” (pgs. 44-45)
The questers have several adventures; escaping from a grizzly bear slaver, saving a rat village from a giant rattlesnake, and avoiding the aerial attacks of eagles while crossing a great plain. New animals double the group from four to eight. They are confused to discover that the Haunted Land is a lush forest instead of the black and dead desolation of the legend. Eventually they reach their goal, but the ruined, crumbling city of the Long Ago Ones is more awesome, extensive and decayed than they expect. Do the secrets still exist in the rotted buildings? It belatedly dawns on them: if they want the Long Ago Ones’ magic (science and technology) to improve their lives, and if the Long Ago Ones destroyed themselves with that technology, how safe will it be for them to use it?
A final revelation makes it clear that the Long Ago Ones did indeed destroy the earth (“where the air is a foul poison and the land is black and dead”) through pollution combined with a back-to-Nature abandonment of technology just when it was most needed to save mankind. 1975 was in the midst of high-profile super-pesticides vs. no-pesticides-at-all debates. There were no clear-cut answers. McGowen similarly leaves Kipp and the animals to make their own decisions.
It is ironic to consider that if this novel had been written twenty years earlier, during the bomb-shelter panic-stricken 1950s, man’s extinction and the desolation would have been attributed instead to nuclear war and radiation poisoning. Odyssey from River Bend (wraparound cover by Robert LoGrippo) is a bit moralizing, but mostly it is a good talking-animals adventure novel for young readers.