Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Rewards of Stubbornness in Nwokeji’s Red Nest

Isaac Attah Ogezi
Thelma Nwokeji’s debut children’s novel, Red Nest, is a great contribution to children’s literature. Set in Akani village, the novel moves in a hair-raising speed to an unnamed part of a city. It revolves around the life of Ike, a clever and stubborn twelve-year-old who is dissatisfied with his poor parents, their wretched home, the endless farm work, their inability to send him and his elder brother Emeka to school and a catalogue of other grudges. One day his uncle in Alabeke (America) arrives at the village for the Christmas holidays and offers to take either him or Emeka to the white man’s land. The choice is thrown open and the criteria for the selection will be based on a week’s training on reading and writing and the better of the two will be chosen in an aptitude test to go to the white man’s land. But Ike, a dreamer, instead of staying glued to his books, would rather prefer to live in his dreams than realities, “His mind would drift away to thoughts of being in the white man’s land, wearing new and fine clothes and speaking English just like Ekene” (p. 12). As his dreams grow wild, so do realities slip away from him, and he soon discovers much to his chagrin that “Emeka would pass the test ahead of him, and that he would be the one to stay behind and continue with the difficult farm work that had no ending” (p. 13). To forestall this likely fate, Ike resorts to Plan B with deadly consequences which nearly claim his life. His crooked, short-cut plan, Plan B, is to befriend his uncle’s son, while his elder brother labours with the lessons and in the end, he would be his uncle’s son’s choice rather than merit. This backfires and he is kidnapped by two men in a red car and made to undergo a nightmarish experience that makes his hair’s breadth escape a miracle. In the end, he emerges a much matured boy, shorn of the mists of his childish dreams.
From this work, we learn that writing for children as an adult is not an all-comers’ field but a rather specialized form of art by far harder than teaching them. Nwokeji has been able to successfully bring herself down to the level of comprehension of her target children – within the age-range of eight to sixteen – in terms of language and the complexity of plot. The story is fast-paced, gripping and suspenseful enough to keep the children’s interest from the first page to the end, non-stop, with less emphasis on difficult psychology and symbolism. This work will surely encourage the present dying reading culture among our children, given its highly entertaining value.
The didactic lessons for children in this novel are numerous and straightforward – the rewards of stubbornness and impatience when one takes the short-cut routes to success. The major character Ike is quite unlike his elder brother Emeka who is a year older. He despises his parents and mocks their poverty. He hates farm work with a passion, “he wondered why he had to suffer so much in return for very little. He did not know any other child of his age who went to the farm everyday.” (p.6). He dislikes the idea that he is not sent to school because of lack of money: “Their excuse was always that there was no money. There was no money for adequate food, no money for adequate clothes and no money to go to school like some children did. He was tired of their ‘no money’ catchphrase” (p. 19). Apart from his parents whom he holds to disdain and interrupts at will, he carries these ill-manners to people outside. When he loses his way to his uncle’s house in the village, an old man offers to help him only to show him the wrong house. Ike riles at the old man: “This is a rubbish house. Why did you waste my time when you did not know Mr. Obi’s house? Oh, you have deceived me you old man. Go away from me!” (p. 20). Appalled by this rude behaviour from a mere child, the old man tries to appease him further only to be told off by Ike: “Go away from me, you deceitful man” (p.20). On his way home, he runs into a woman who shows him the way to his uncle’s house and “he sprinted away from the woman without even saying a word of gratitude” (p. 24). In a word, the trouble Ike faces is a didactic lesson for recalcitrant children like him to learn from and to make amends. Also, the spate of child-kidnappings and violence against children is well chronicled in this moving work. We see how children are made victims of their parents’ wealth when child-kidnappers come calling. The writer shows the advanced level by which child-kidnappings have reached in the country and seems to be calling the urgent attention of all stakeholders to the present laxity of our security system. The underworld of child-kidnapping, the dreaded Red Nest, headed by the merciless Master who uses blackmail to recruit his lieutenants and terror to silence them, is starkly exposed. We see a complex terror organization, how the Red Nest bristles with little “bridling”, how they go after their victims’ parents to claim their ransoms, with nurses and doctors in their employ, etc.
For a debut children’s novelist, Nwokeji is a maestro of the art of children’s storytelling. She tells a thrilling, unputdownable story in the class of Achebe’s Chike and the River, Ekwensi’s An African Night’s Entertainment, Juju Rock, The Passport of Mallam Iliya, Samakwe and the Highway Robbers and Drummer Boy and Eddie Iroh’s Without a Silver Spoon. Her use of language is deliberately simple for her target audience without being so flat that her readers will not have to consult the dictionary every now and then to increase their vocabulary. The symbolic image in the use of “red” is very significant – “Red Nest” (pp. 50, 52 and 56), “red roof” (p. 24) and “red car” (p. 25). Apart from the beauty of the colour “red”, it also symbolizes danger by which the central character Ike or our children are surrounded with. However, “Red Nest” as a title of a children’s book appears rather complex for them, the same way as the use of “Scarface” and “Hairyface” (pp. 27 – 30) for the characters Kodo and Vynn before their identity was later made known. The inclusion of a glossary at the end of the book would have been helpful to explain some Igbo words used in the text which are not self-explanatory such as “Alabake” (pp. 10, 17 and 19), “umunnaya” (p. 7), “Eziokwu” (p. 7), “Itiboribo” (p. 13) and “opi” (p. 23). The non-Igbo readers will find those words strange which may impede comprehension.
Perhaps, the most glaring snag to an otherwise beautiful story is the writer’s attempt to write a crime thriller in the mould of a James Hadley Chase novel instead of a serious work of art. This makes the work suffer from unbelievability. It is not convincing to the readers that a twelve-year-old boy Ike said to be “very clever” (p. 11), does not know the way to his parents’ home in a village after his abortive plan to visit his uncle. As if this is not enough, when Ike is apparently kidnapped and the opportunity comes for his escape, he tells the village man who sees him in the company of the strange and fearsome twosome that they are looking for Mr. Obi’s house just returned from the USA. Ike surprisingly keeps sealed lips when one of the two men lies that they are his uncles! Most importantly, there are highly improbable scenes like when Tom, a member of the kidnap gang, suddenly takes pity on Ike and decides to help him escape in a classic deus ex machina. The writer takes this improbability further when Ike escapes and a search is mounted for him. Adams, also a member of the kidnap racket, finds him in a van and suddenly “imagined several other possibilities for himself” (p. 113). These possibilities as quickly as they came, morphed into a decision to help the boy escape again, “And he decided that neither the money he could make from Mr. Obi nor the token reward from Master for finding Ike could compensate for his independence”(p. 113). Improbabilities are the stuff by which thrillers are made of and that accounts for the reason why thrillers do not make serious literature. Also, for a book from new home-based publishers, Mazariyya Books, it is beautifully illustrated with the editing almost flawless save for a few typographical and grammatical errors such as: “father’s reincarnate” (p. 12), “only one shoe” (p. 19) instead of “only one pair of shoes”, “under the blazing sun” (p. 19), “First you ask of …” (p. 23), “heading to “(pp. 28, 41, and 98), “a stone throw” (p. 57), “Majority of the children” (pp. 58 and 68), “towardss the hostel” (p. 68) and “kola was asthmatic” (p. 101).
In conclusion, Nwokeji, an architect and a mother, has shown in this work that she understands the psychology of children very well and in her hands language can be made mallaeable for their intake. For a debut children’s novel, Red Nest, is comparable to any work by the grandfather of Nigeria’s children’s literature, the late Cyprian Ekwensi. If Nwokeji can only infuse more verisimilitude into her creative fort, she may yet lift her future stories from the muck of being merely thrillers to the class of serious literature for children and possibly adult readers.