May 01, 2019

Girl of the Southern Sea

Written by Michelle Kadarusman
Pajama Press
224 pp.
Ages 8-12
May 2019

This is the story of Nia, a girl who lives with her five-year-old brother Rudi and their father in a tin shack along the train tracks of Jakarta, Indonesia. Though at fourteen she has finished middle school, she craves to continue her education, but there is no extra money for the school fees needed for high school. Instead she works to tend to the family: getting her brother to and from school, making meals, cleaning, and preparing batter for their father's fried banana cart. Sadly, it also means bringing her father home from nights of drinking arak (an alcoholic drink) at Jango's hut and cleaning up after Bapak's poor choices. Still Nia tries to see a future, hopeful of saving money for school and writing stories about Dewi Kadita, the Queen of the Southern Sea, who offers life lessons and the promise of a better life from dire circumstances.

But, with any story, there are plot twists and conflicts that challenge characters and wrench the narrative from a smooth path to a satisfying terminus. For Nia, it's a minibus crash from which she alone survives essentially unscathed. In a culture rife with superstitions and a predilection for supernatural stories, Nia's survival is seen as a miracle and consequently their banana fritters attributed with being infused with good luck. But how fortunate is Nia truly?

This is the basis for Michelle Kadarusman's story of Nia, but I cannot convey the depth of the storytelling within Girl of the Southern Sea and it's message for girls to make their own opportunities. (A portion of the book's proceeds go to Plan International Canada's #BecauseIAmaGirl campaign.) Even dealing with her father's alcoholism and weakness of character, and inherent vulnerabilities because of poverty and alarming cultural and social attitudes, Nia is driven to continue her education and write her stories. She stands up for herself–"I am not your promise to give." (pg. 196)– and makes sure that her life becomes the story she wants told.
I am here to live a different story. I am here to write my own story. (pg. 202)
There are so many tragedies in Nia's story that come when others try to impose their lives on her circumstances. There are the corrupt police who assault her father; her best friend Yuli who may be involved in illicit activities as a way to improve her conditions; vigilantes who turn on Nia violently when the good luck they purported she peddled was proven to be lacking; and her father who is willing to choose his own needs over those of his children. Still Nia takes guidance from her mother, via dreams, and from Dewi Kadita, the princess cursed with disfiguring skin conditions relieved only in the Southern Sea, and begins to make a life for herself. Its origins may be saturated in misfortune and tragedy but it will become the story she wants to write for herself and make her the Girl of the Southern Sea.

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