Sisters Eleanor and Mike have come to rely on each other for comfort and love. The space beneath Eleanor’s bed is a favorite hiding place where they can retreat from real life when their parents begin to fight almost every night.
One night, after their abusive father breaks the family heirloom they call the “witch ball,” the girls find a river running under Eleanor’s bed. After falling in, they discover that the river leads to a land of dreams and nightmares and that, according to strange creatures who live there, Eleanor and Mike’s mother’s family members are the gatekeepers of this world. They are supposed to maintain the boundary that keeps the worlds separate, but they haven’t been doing the job and now the nightmare world is starting to leak into the real world. This means that people will experience more nightmares, but the leaking is also literal — the houses in their neighborhood are sprouting leaks everywhere.
The leaky houses are causing even more stress for Eleanor and Mike’s parents because their father is the developer and he’s trying to get a loan (using their house as collateral) so he can further expand the neighborhood. He takes his frustration out on his family and his wife seems powerless to stop him.
It’s up to Eleanor and Mike to fix the boundary between the worlds. Eleanor excels in school where she has supportive teachers and can escape from her violent home life. Her research for a science project may give her the clues they need to shore up the boundary. But can the sisters also fix their family in the process? Maybe. Maybe not. But whatever happens, they’ll always have each other.
Riverland (2020), a finalist for the Andre Norton (Nebula) Award, is a sad but sweet and hopeful adventure about the effects of abusive and neglectful parenting on children. Mike, the younger sister, has issues with self-control and acts out at school. Her older sister Eleanor has low self-esteem, is awkward and apprehensive, and feels like she is always saying or doing the wrong thing. It’s sometimes unpleasant to be in her head, but Fran Wilde is making a point about the long-lasting consequences of being demeaned and unsupported by your own parents.
But Riverland is also about self-compassion and resilience and how imaginative escapes as well as deep bonds — in this case especially between sisters, but also with friends and other family members — can help children overcome the bad hand they’ve been dealt. Fran Wilde uses the properties of glass as a clever and effective metaphor for resilience.
Recorded Books’ audio edition is superbly narrated by Suzy Jackson. Her youthful sounding voice is perfect for this children’s novel.