I thought this was an excellent book, but I think it might be misunderstood by readers.
This is a retelling of the story of Noah with modern language. Other modifications include imagined conversations and scenarios set in the appropriate time (the third millennium BC) and place (the land of Canaan).
Sebah (later called Shebah), 16, is a Canaanite farmer, and in spite of her lack of religious devotion, is a good and spiritual being, who loves and appreciates all of nature. When the torrential rains start, she takes her pet kit fox “Screamer” and manages to escape the rising waters by climbing higher and higher, finding refuge in a huge cedar tree. She is joined by a village boy, Aban, and after a tense beginning they come to an understanding about helping to take care of each other.
By day 24, Aban is dying and too weak to act, when they see a huge ark float through the roiling waters near their raft they made from cedar branches. Aban insists that Sebah climb the rope into the ark and live, for both of them.
Sebah hides out in a cage with Screamer, already occupied by a pair of very intelligent bonobos (these are small chimpanzees) that Sebah names Queen and The Male; two aardvarks; and two duikers. She conceals herself under the straw whenever the members of Noah’s family come down to her deck to feed the animals, and this is how she learns the names of the animals as well as getting to “know” Noah’s family.
As time passes, she sees that the animals are going crazy pent up in their small cages, and at night, she figures out a way to let them run around on the deck for a while undiscovered before getting them back in their cages. Soon she is assisted by Bash, another stowaway who is hiding on top of the ark.
After Sebah is discovered by one of the wives, she goes to join Bash atop the ark, because Noah is determined, by what he considers to be his instructions from God, only to let those he selected to survive leave the ark alive. Bash is especially important to Sebah now; she is carrying Aban’s baby.
Discussion: Sebah is a wonderful character. She is brave, resourceful, and optimistic, and doesn’t back down for anyone or anything. She is the sun in the endless rain:
“…all at once I realize something: It’s stupid to be sad. That’s the sum of it. I have to find something good to do. Something that brings me hope. That’s the secret now – the secret to surviving on the ark. Maybe it’s the secret to surviving anywhere. I don’t believe in Noah’s god, but I do believe what Noah said. We must all do what we can.”
And Sebah – determined – finds way to ensure that the new earth will be a better place.
The author has run up against a good deal of negative reader response by daring to portray Noah’s family as “dysfunctional” (as if the Bible didn’t do that already), and discussing the sexual nature of animals (as if that is unnatural). [It should be noted that the bonobo, the closest living relative to humans, is known for its high levels of sexual behavior; but this activity has many functions including stress reduction.] Part of the message of this book is the effect of captivity and stress on animals (and people), and it is, in my opinion, an excellent piece of exegesis on the story, speculating on what it would be like in the ark for the people and the animals to be cooped up and living in fear for that long.
I suspect that some readers might be attracted to this book thinking it will be “Christian fiction” (even though, well, it’s based on the Old Testament, but never mind), or at least, that it might offer some sort of religious gratification. This is not the kind of book it is at all, but it does adhere pretty much to the original story (if anything, portraying Noah and his family a bit more sympathetically than in Genesis). Sebah is one of the best female role models ever, taking charge of her own fate, and doing her bit to contribute to the good of humanity.
Evaluation: This is a terrific book, but one shouldn’t approach it with expectations of religious affirmation in the typical sense. It is a story about survival and love, the sanctity of living things, and the rewards of recognizing and respecting that sanctity. Highly recommended!
A Paula Wiseman Book, published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2014