Tag Archives: education

The Rainbow Troops (2005) – Andrea HIRATA

Australia has an odd relationship with Indonesia. On the one hand, they are a strong economic partner, with their language singled out in the Asian Century white paper as one of the four key languages to be taught in schools around the country. On the other hand, a recent survey suggested that 40% of Australians didn’t know that Bali was a part of Indonesia. So it’s nice to see Random House Australia commissioning a translation of the best-selling Indonesian novel of all time.

In a small town on the small island of Belitong, a tin mining company has set up a huge mine, bringing with it the benefits of globalisation and development. But these benefits are not trickling down to everyone. In a small public school in the jungle of Belitong are the Rainbow Troops—a band of determined young students led by an even more determined young teacher struggling to get an education with minimal funds.

I can’t recall any other novel quite so focused on education. I’m not talking about stuffy British and American campus novels, or even love stories set at universities, but novels about the nitty-gritty parts of education, the love of learning that needs to be inspired in young children for them to succeed at school, and as a result, at life. This is something that we in the developed world probably take for granted, but in many parts of the developing world, where education resources (including teachers) are rare, the benefits of education are not always clear. So it’s good to have novels like this that remind us how great learning is—not just formal education, but that love of learning about the world around us.

Much of the novel concerns itself with class in Indonesia, and widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in contemporary Indonesia. Though many parts of rural Indonesia have benefitted greatly from the tin mining boom (that is, of course, ruining the environment), creating communities of company employees who have access to health care, education for their children, comfortable housing, and all of the other mod cons, there are just as many people who do not have jobs in these companies. These other people are the people whose children populate Muhammadiyah Elementary.

In some ways, the central tragedy of this novel is the thought that, if these children had been born in a different part of Indonesia—not even a different part of the world—they would have been granted access to a full, well-stocked education system that would have been able to nurture and grow their talents in maths and science, in history, in music. Lintang, the smartest child in the class, becomes this figure of tragedy: he is stupidly smart; he can do maths problems in his head without thinking about them; but he has to cycle 40 minutes each way to and from school just to get a chance to go to a crappy village school. It’s a depressing thought.

Or, at least, it would be, if this book weren’t so optimistic. The first scene, where the village struggles to get even ten children to form a class for the year, really sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Though they might worry about not being able to succeed, there is always something that gets them through the tough times. This is pretty much the standard for all other obstacles and hurdles that are thrown at this band of young students throughout. If they just believe in themselves, if they knuckle down and work hard, if they help each other through the good times and bad, they will be able to accomplish anything. With a message as broad as that, it’s not hard to see why it sold millions of copies in Indonesia.

The multicultural nature of Indonesian society is portrayed well here—though the school is free, it is an Islamic school. Yet, despite this, people who are not Muslim, including Malays, attend the school seemingly without problem. Indeed, the first girl Ikal falls in love with is a Chinese girl whose uncle runs a stall in the local market. It’s safe to say Hirata is far more concerned with interrogating the role of class and wealth in modern Indonesia rather than any potential race issues.

In the world’s least surprising news, this is a heavily autobiographical novel. Hirata himself was born and raised in Belitong, and went to a school similar to this. As a result, it’s hard not to see the main character simply as Andrea Hirata, moving beyond that traditional autobiographical first-novel tone to something rather like a memoir.

The language is nothing to write home about—fairly workman-like, though thankfully, it never reaches the level of twee that marks other novels set in developing nations (I’m looking at you, Alexander McCall Smith). The chapters are often short, each dealing with a different event in the school years of these children’s lives. If I had one complaint, it would be that the editing could have been a bit tighter—the timeline is a little dodgy at times, and events keep getting mention as though they are about to happen, but then don’t occur until the end.

This is a novel about David beating Goliath. It is a novel about globalisation in a developing world—rampant modernisation might be good for some, but there will always be some left behind. But just because the government doesn’t care about them doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy, or can’t help themselves. I hate to use this word, but it is a heartwarming tale. Definitely a feel-good novel.

Tagged , , ,

The Dead School (1995) – Patrick McCABE

I saw Breakfast on Pluto a few years ago, and made a mental note to look out for Patrick McCabe’s books if I ever saw them. Fortunately, The Dead School was to be found in a second hand bookstore I go into sometimes, and I picked it up. A good year and a half ago. In my defence, I moved overseas, and didn’t have access to it for a long time – but excuses no longer. I finally picked it up, and set myself up for some depressing Irish fiction.

Malachy Dudgeon and Raphael Bell are two men born in different times in different places, but with similar upbringings. Both are born in small Irish towns, and both eventually becomes teachers. And yet, they couldn’t be more different. Their attitudes to life, learning and their students are worlds apart. As their lives slowly intertwine and interact, there is no doubt about the effect each will have on the other – this is a make or break relationship.

What is it about the Irish that makes them write depressing, dark novels? The weather? Needless to day, McCabe follows in the grand Irish tradition, and gives us two main characters who find themselves in a world for which they are thoroughly unsuited, though in completely different ways.

I found Raphael less likeable, but in the end, a far more fascinating character. A perfect young child grows up into a perfect young man, and eventually grows into an outdated dinosaur, scared off by the feminist movement. His inability to see that his own living in the past – listening to hymns on the radio on a Saturday afternoon with his perfect housewife, caring for his students through corporal punishment – is causing his own insanity is quite fascinating.

Malachy is a whole separate kettle of fish. While it is built up that Raphael is almost destined from birth to be a perfect boarding school headmaster, Malachy seems to fall into becoming a teacher. He treats his teaching college days as a joke, and when he finally becomes a teacher, it is clear he has no idea what he’s doing. But his desire to prove to Raphael that he’s not an idiot – driven by either fear or anger, we’re never really sure – causes him to place pressure on himself, though this only helps in making his personal life a living hell. Having grown up with teachers all around me, I can’t help but understand the pressures of being a teacher. It’s hard work. And that many, many people are unsuited to it. Malachy is one of them.

In the end, though, there doesn’t seem to be hope for either of these characters. Raphael is driven to insanity by being forced to leave the school – his entire life’s work gone. And Malachy is so obviously a bad teacher, we can’t help but agree that people like him – people who want to be best friends with their students are clearly never going to make it. Their descents into loopiness are well drawn, and their worlds becoming increasingly bizarre, with Raphael in particular becomingn certifiable. He takes to teaching drunk classes in his own apartment, filled with boys who don’t even exist. And as Malachy is eaten up with guilt, he too turns to drink. Perhaps this is an Irish thing?

A word on women. This book is depressingly, relentlessly misogynistic. All the women here are presented in less than glorious terms: loose wives, who spend their time sleeping around with everyone except their husbands; “feminazi” style women (some of who have !shock! had abortions) who want to change everything that good society stands for; or the meek, supplicant housewife, who always has a warm dinner on the table when the husband gets home. Do not read this book if you want to feel good about the position of women in society.

There’s a lot of stuff going on in The Dead School, but what struck me most about the whole thing was the question of generations, and the way old and young people interact with each other. By giving us two teacher who have similar spatial backgrounds, but different temporal ones – and who work with yet another generation every day –  McCabe is able to show us how Ireland has changed over the last fifty or so years, and how it is continuing to do so. Neither side comes off better – instead of resorting to attacking the “youth of today”, McCabe provides a far more balanced, and therefore interesting, piece of work.

Tagged , , ,

Caleb’s Crossing (2011) – Geraldine BROOKS

I should start by saying, I’ve never read Geraldine Brooks before. And never really had any intention of doing so. I always though her books appealed only to a particular kind of middle aged women, who like to think they’re reading intelligent literature, but not really. Yes, I know, I’m a horrible person. But the blurb of Caleb’s Crossing made it sound so interesting, I had to check it out.

In 1665, a young man from a tiny island off the coast of Boston went to Harvard College. This was significant, because Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck was the first Native American to do so. Educated by Christian missionaries, he has a firm friendship with the daughter of the head priest of the colony, and as he grows up, so too does his relationship with this rather remarkable young woman.

Caleb is a surprisingly tangential character to the whole thing, in the end. This is the story of Bethia, pure and simple. So if you’re expecting a story about the struggles of an outsider trying to fit into white society, you’ll be disappointed. What Brooks does, though, is highlight the horrible, horrible misogynism of the time, and what it meant to be an intelligent woman in a time when women were expected to cook, clean, pop some babies out, and not think.

I like that Brooks doesn’t take the easy path, either. Caleb and Bethia are childhood friends, teaching each other about their culture, language and such, and as time goes by, tough they remain in contact, they simply remain friends. There are, of course, questions about whether Bethia actually loves Caleb – and what that might mean – but it is no more than a fleeting mention, and I think the book is all the better for it. Rather than have (yet another) story about a woman who falls in love with an inappropriate man, Bethia does eventually marry, but it is to a man

Caleb’s story is just as interesting as Bethia’s, and I wish Brooks had made more out of it. To have discovered that a Native American went to Harvard in the 1600s just blows my mind, and I do think there’s a great tale to be told there. And though it is told here, as I said, it’s not the focus. We get whole swathes of his childhood, because he spends so much time with Bethia. But his adulthood is somewhat skipped over, because he’s not with Bethia any longer. I suppose that’s the problem with first person narration – you will never get the whole story. And as he grows up, Caleb becomes more and more of an English gentleman, so he never shows any emotion. Just as Bethis doesn’t know what’s going on in his mind, so too are we blocked out.

The title is interesting, too. There are sea crossings in this novel – Martha’s Vineyard is cut off from the rest of the American colony, an outpost where British civilisation is trying desperately to survive, and at the same time, spread the word of Christianity to the savages amongst whom they live. And these crossings are dangerous – at least two main characters die in these tiny ships that make the journey.

But the other crossing is one that all of us who did Year 12 between 2004 and 2008 will understand all too well. It’s a journey. Well, really, it’s just two character arcs. Caleb, in particular, crosses cultures to be able to gain the distinction of being the first Native American to go to Harvard, and it’s a tough transition. On the surface, Caleb appears to have undergone perfect integration into English society, but every now and then, we are allowed a peak behind the mask, and it is clear his transformation isn’t perfect. Whether this is because others won’t let him forget his background, or whether he just doesn’t like it, we may never know.

Bethia, too, undergoes a transformation. In many ways, while not succumbing to societal pressure, she does realise her own limitations. And I mean that in a good way – characters unaware of their own limitations annoy me. And so Bethia does marry the right man, and they do have a son, and it all works out. I don’t think this is a cop out – I suspect Brooks realised that, because this is a historical novel, she couldn’t have Bethia and Caleb get together, and run off into the distance together to have beautiful babies. I won’t tell you Caleb’s fate (though I will point out that I think it’s highly symbolic), but Bethia’s fate is nicely played.

I have to admit just how wrong I was about Geraldine Brooks. Caleb’s Crossing is the work of a novelist fully aware of what is going on, and making some very intelligent choices. It’s very well written, with just enough olde worlde language to make it seem that bit more authentic, without being grating. The characters are familiar without being boringly archetypical, and their arcs are well plotted.

If her other novels are anything like this one, then I should probably eat my pride, and go and read some.

Tagged , , , , ,