The Wind Rises
(Alama Book 1)
By Timotheé de Fombelle
(Translated by Holly James)
(Illustrations by François Place)
Europa Editions — 16th August 2022
ISBN: 9781609457877 — Hardcover — 410 pp.
Tucked safely on the plains of a secluded and verdant valley, 13-year-old Alma lives with her family in peace, removed from continental conflicts and European colonial powers who sail the 1786 seas and plague the African coasts with resource confiscation: elements and minerals from the soil; human lives in the slave trade.
Alma and her younger brother Lam delight in the life and landscape of their home, its familiar comfort, and the seasonal cycles that provide for them. One day, they notice a strange looking ‘zebra’ of pure white, that Alma names Cloud. Observation of the new arrival awakens a curiosity in the siblings of what other wonders might lie in the world beyond their isolated valley home. Though their father has often warned them against straying away, Alma begins to consider nevertheless going off to explore further.
However, Lam pre-empts her plans when he decides to mount the inexplicably tame Cloud, and the white ‘zebra’ takes off with him beyond the valley. With her younger brother is gone – and understanding that the current pathway from the valley to the world beyond will close back up for year with the approaching change of seasons – Alma decides to set off after her brother.
In the meantime, their father also independently sets off after Lam, fueled by a desperation borne from his secret past: first-hand knowledge of the horrors that exist outside of their valley, horrors he played a direct hand in before meeting the woman who became his wife, and they settled into their secluded home to raise a family.
As these events proceed, a young orphan named Joseph Mars plots on the other side of the world to steal aboard a slave ship, the Sweet Amelie, on a clandestine mission to find something its ruthless captain has hidden aboard, and information on a trove of pirate treasure buried somewhere in the Caribbean. But, Joseph quickly learns this might not be so easy, and that others on board might have hidden agendas of their own.
Along with these two young protagonists, de Fombelle takes a large cast of characters from very different cultures and experiences, and places them onto intersecting paths of destinies in a swiftly changing world. The result is a rollicking adventure novel that captivates through the weighty emotion of its characters, themes, and historical setting as much as its entertaining and complex plot.
Written as a middle-grade/young-adult novel, The Wind Rises reminded me of some of the best books discovered during my childhood, thrilling adventures that spanned the globe and exotic locales. The illustrations here by François Place helped in such childhood connections. Of course, that term ‘exotic’ comes loaded with some baggage, and those childhood tales I adored were certainly colored by their colonial origins, even with some scrubbing over done since their original publications. What impressed me so much about de Fombelle’s novel is how well it captured my nostalgia by keeping the best of adventure story plots and diverse settings, but casting it in less problematic terms that still maintains educative historical accuracies.
The Wind Rises succeeds with its two contrasting main protagonists, female and male, African and European. Alma comes from a more innocent and protected life whereas Joseph comes from an existence of cruel, street-wise survival. Yet, they share important traits that sit at the thematic core of the story: human compassion and personal resilience.
Of the two, Alma is an open book to readers. Her curiosity, loyalty, and bravery becomes clear from the novel’s opening. It’s fascinating to watch her journey into a dangerous new world in search of her brother, and how that parallels her father’s search for Lam. Both are unstoppable forces of will, the father from drawing upon his knowledge and abilities from his past, and Alma drawing on her heart. Though ignorant of the world, she confidently asserts herself towards her goal, utilizing her practical experience of living in the valley (and the languages her parents have taught her) to find her way in strange new cultures and circumstances.
Joseph’s story, in contrast, remains a bit of a mystery to readers, as he keeps his exact goals and details of the past closely guarded while infiltrating the Sweet Amelie. At first, Joseph seems mostly concerned with himself, and gold, but slowly the reader begins to see there is more to Joseph and his convictions than might at first be apparent.
Timotheé de Fombelle sets the stories of these two teens within a period that allows incorporation of historical events and themes that are important for people to learn and remember. The horrible nature of the Middle Passage and the slave trade of course ranks foremost here. The issue is related through the eyes of perpetrators, sympathizers, victims, and opponents alike. Sometimes a character might fall into two of these categories even. Importantly, de Fombelle handles such a difficult topic with aplomb, neither glamorizing or exploiting the issue. The ‘villain’ and antagonist of the novel appears to be the entire political/economic system of colonialism and Africa, rather than any single human. Yet, the reprehensible captain of the Sweet Amelie does fit into the villain category too, particularly for Joseph’s plotline.
Slavery is not the only societal issue taken up by de Fombelle through the plot of The Wind Rises. The entire global political/economic system that slavery fits into is a broader stroke of the historical focus of the novel, and a secondary character who stands to inherit her family’s business fortunes (though not really, because she’s a female) serves to put feminist perspective into the novel as well.
One of the largest ironies within the novel is that the plot involves pirate treasure (and hopefully not to spoil much, eventually pirates.) However, what becomes glaringly obvious to the reader through the perspective of Alma and her family, and other Africans, is how the legitimate vessels of business are really no different, plundering the oceans and a land.
As the pages of The Wind Rises pass, it’s easy to become impresses with how much de Fombelle does in a middle grade adventure novel. Moments of tranquility pass to fun and laughter, to joy, but then to agony and pain, to resilience and stubborn pride, despair to hope. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion that goes alongside the rollercoaster plot and changes of scenery from Africa to Europe to the seas and to Caribbean plantations. Through this all the writing is impeccably measured to convey informal excitement and reverential beauty each, and Holly James does a powerful job here in retaining that in the English translation from the French.
Moments of beauty in the novel mark perhaps the most memorable for me: Alma’s appreciation and wonder of her home landscape, the songs of captive slaves who communicate in support through misery, the little choices of defiance by those with some power, who look to restore some humanity to those treated inhumanely, the show of power still present in the oppressed.
Amid all that is that adventure story to keep readers hooked: the mystery of Joseph and wondering what will happen to Alma, and each member of her family. Readers can expect some answers here, but not all. The Wind Rises is the first novel in the Alma series, and I cannot wait for Europa to release the remainder in English translation. I kind of mean that literally: I can read them in French. Though, I’ll eagerly check out future releases in English regardless.