CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 2. . . .September 11, 2015
10 Rivers that Shaped the World begins in Ethiopia, three million years ago, and ends in China, in the modern day. In between, Marilee Peters visits almost every continent (with the exception of Antarctica) and tells captivating tales of how people co-exist, benefit from, and sometimes subdue the forces of rivers. This is an excellent introduction for middle grade and upper elementary readers to the relationship between nature and human society, and it would certainly create young history lovers from its readable, accessible, and ultimately absorbing accounts. The rivers are the stars of the book, and along the banks, we find tales of human origins, achievement, and survival.
10 Rivers that Shaped the World offers snapshots of social and cultural history of human civilization as it interacts with the natural habitat around them. Each river’s portrait begins with a map, showing its point of origin in its headwaters to its endpoint, length, stats, and claim to fame. Each river receives a tagline: the Yangtze is “a changing river,” the Rhine “an international river”, while the Tigris & Euphrates are “Twin Rivers of Civilization”. A brief fiction piece anchors the river’s themed tagline. For example, readers immerse themselves in the Thames by travelling back in time to the 19th century and joining two young mudlarks who root around in the mud to recover rags, metal and coal to sell. Special attention is made that each opening fictional vignette is from the point of view of a young person, even when sometimes that young person can meet with famous figures in history (such as Sun Yat Sen).
Peters does an excellent job of sustaining a young reader’s interest, displaying the full richness of history in each river, demonstrating the significant impact on the way societies formed and respond to new forces. She documents the ingenious ways people use rivers to sustain agriculture, commerce, and more. For example, Peters explains how the ancient Mesopotamians worked together by hand to dig a system of canals to irrigate their land. Since canals could get choked with silt very quickly and needed constant care, quarrels over irrigation were brought to the king. Helping to regulate disputes over the canals contributed in part to the formation of one of the first systems of law, Hammurabi’s Code. The Ganges is described as the “river of faith”, and Peters describes the Kumbh Mela, a festival attracting millions of pilgrims from all over India and the world every 12 years. Gathering at the point where the Ganges and Yamunia rivers join, the pilgrims also worship the Sarasvati, a mythical underground stream that people cannot see; people bathe in the water and make offerings. Contrasted with how the Ganges is also a river that sustains the daily life of Indians, such as the lives of the traditional washermen, the dhabi wallahs, readers get a balanced, rich perspective on life along the Ganges’ shores. Colonialism in Africa due to the incursions of European civilizations also shows the devastating impact of exploration in the name of empire through the book’s profile on the Zambezi river, while the symbolic power of swimming across a river attains genuine political influence through the crossing of the Yangtze by Mao, not once, but twice, in a bid to secure power.
Embedded within each river’s profile are secondary profiles of other rivers, with the St Lawrence getting a mention as the “beaver highway” used to convey beaver pelts to satisfy the fashion craze for beaver fur back in Europe. The artwork by Kim Rosen creates a unified aesthetic throughout the book, with somewhat stylized illustrations imbued with a rich palette of teals, browns, and golds. Finally, awareness of the environmental challenges that come with keeping the rivers clean usually takes on an optimistic tone as Peters notes that scientists are working together to ensure the integrity of the rivers for future generations.
Stepping away from the book, one gets the sense that the stories highlighted here are only a few spots in time out of the millennia of stories alongside the rivers, and that thousands of stories are left to be discovered, along other shores, or along the same ones. The world becomes a much bigger and wondrous than it was before reading this book. The rivers, ever flowing, are simply waiting to reveal their secrets for anyone with the patience and curiosity to plumb them. An accomplished, well researched volume, 10 Rivers that Shaped the World is a must have in school and public libraries.
Ellen Wu is a teen services librarian for Surrey Libraries in Surrey, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.