Friday, November 17, 2006

At the Crossroads

by Rachel Isadora. This is a satisfying story of longing, anticipation, joy and reunion told with simplicity and beauty. Children all over the world know the same anxiety of waiting for parents to return, and the sweet celebration of family coming together again after separation.

Rachel Isadora’s beautiful paintings and sweet, spare text tell this story of South African children waiting and celebrating the home-coming of their fathers. The fathers have been away, working in the mines, and it is a long journey home. The children wake up early in the morning and start to prepare to greet them at the Crossroads. The other adults in the community go about their daily chores washing and feeding and leading the children through the school day. All day long the children chant and sing “Our fathers are coming home! Our fathers are coming home!” After school the tension really starts to build as the children pull together scraps and make musical instruments to form a band. People begin to gather at the crossroads and there is singing and dancing in anticipation. As the evening lengthens the adults begin to drift away, but the children hang on. In the dark there are only six children waiting under the stars. Mother brings them dinner. Still the fathers don’t come. All night long they wait and the next dawn the rooster crows and the shop owner opens up. At last they hear the rumble of a truck and jump up. “Wake up Zolani! Our fathers have come!” shouts the narrator. On the last page they march home together singing and dancing.

Isadora’s illustrations of life in the segregated townships of South Africa show children living in corrugated tin shacks and mothers drawing the day’s water in buckets. The grimness of this life is contrasted dramatically with the joy and exuberance shown in the children’s faces. Their happiness explodes off the page while they are making musical instruments and preparing the party. Their sadness and worry and fear show clearly in the dark night. When the fathers at last return in the morning arms are outstretched and reaching for embraces. The final illustration shows them walking together toward the sunrise, arms raised in triumph. The youngest children are carried on their father’s shoulders and light washes over them.

This story is beautifully written with just the right balance of emotion and realism. For students learning to write this would be a perfect example of plot tension, climax and resolution. I can see using this book in a class discussion of story elements to show students how character, dialog, diction, setting, plot and description make a powerful story with universal appeal. To illustrate the principal of “show, don’t tell”, I would present this page:
Warm night winds blow.
The crossroads are very dark.
We see our mother coming.
She wants us to come home,
but she knows we will not.
She has brought us food.
In the picture a lonely woman figure is walking across a dark, empty plain. She carries a baby on her hip and a large bowl on her head. She is walking under a red moon toward the lights of the city crossroads. You know her mother’s heart in the words of her son, saying that although she wants them to come home she knows they need to stay waiting for their father. She has come prepared to feed them and comfort them in the long dark night. The loneliness, longing, fear, faith, hope and determination of the mother are also felt in her children and in their absent father. In their separation the family is together. The absent father travels across the same dark landscape in a rumbling truck; in our imaginations he is also filled with longing and anticipation.

This would be a great picture book to use in launching the writer’s workshop. I would love to hear the responses of a group of young story writers discussing this book, and read their subsequent stories. I think younger children would love to draw pictures of their own families coming together after a long day of work and school. In our family the daily drama of evening reunion is filled with stress, impatience, hunger, exhaustion and anxiety as well as joy, relief, affection, rest and satisfaction. Reading this book and writing about it gives me some insight to the bigger picture.

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