Miri­am at the River

Jane Yolen; Khoa Le, illus.

  • Review
By – May 21, 2020

Moses, the lib­er­a­tor and law giv­er, is the cen­tral fig­ure of the Passover sto­ry. But with­out the brav­ery of his pro­tec­tive old­er sis­ter, Miri­am, there would be no exo­dus from Egypt to cel­e­brate. Jane Yolen allows Miri­am to tell her own sto­ry in a poet­ic first-per­son nar­ra­tive, accom­pa­nied by Khoa Le’s lush images of bib­li­cal char­ac­ters and the nat­ur­al world. Although the events of the book are well-known, Yolen’s ver­sion brings new depth to the por­trait of Miri­am, using metaphors, imagery, and psy­cho­log­i­cal insight to expand read­ers’ under­stand­ing of her role.

Miri­am is one of a small num­ber of women des­ig­nat­ed as a prophet in the Hebrew Bible, and in Yolen’s tale, her pow­er to under­stand and influ­ence the peo­ple of Israel is evi­dent from her child­hood. Aware of the restrict­ing real­i­ty of her life, she decides to adopt the path of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence in order to obey God: We are slaves in Egypt/​and in Egypt, Pharaoh’s words/​and Pharaoh’s laws/​must be obeyed…/But God’s law is what I fol­low.” Sim­ple state­ments of truth alter­nate with acces­si­ble metaphors to make Miriam’s choic­es both awe-inspir­ing and believ­able. The prac­ti­cal aspects of Moses’ res­cue are vivid pic­tures of an adven­ture, where an ibis dip­ping its long beak into the Nile is like a scribe’s pen in ink,” and the sun turns the shiny skin of fish into bangles…the col­or of Pharaoh’s jew­els.” With­in the calm­ing beau­ty of her sur­round­ings, Miri­am expe­ri­ences a vision of her future, when the same Nile will become the path to free­dom for the Israelites leav­ing slav­ery behind. Yolen begins Miriam’s sto­ry as one of fam­i­ly love and sur­vival but ele­vates it to fore­shad­ow its ulti­mate pur­pose: Father says prophe­cy is a cloudy glass,/a mud­dy river,/a cur­tain pulled a bit aside.” Her own prophet­ic voice is qui­et­ly insis­tent, trans­lat­ing into the actions, which save her brother’s life.

Women are active agents of change in this sto­ry, but they also expe­ri­ence loss. When Pharaoh’s daugh­ter sees Moses float­ing in his bas­ket, her own child­less­ness is a motive for adopt­ing him. Again, fore­shad­ow­ing the future, Yolen com­ments that her son will cap­ture her heart,/until anoth­er water parts.” Chil­dren often hear the sto­ry as one of a sim­ple and sat­is­fy­ing exchange in which Pharaoh’s daugh­ter gains a son while his bio­log­i­cal moth­er main­tains her tie to him as a wet nurse. Yolen brings out the sad­ness under­ly­ing both the res­cue itself and the even­tu­al wrench­ing sep­a­ra­tions in the Exo­dus narrative.

Khoa Le’s pic­tures could stand alone as stun­ning art works, dream-like encoun­ters between peo­ple and their phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment. Miriam’s face is reflect­ed in that of her broth­er; the sim­i­lar­i­ty of their fea­tures echoes their con­nec­tion as adults who would both be lead­ers of their peo­ple. The infant Moses is the only male char­ac­ter in the book; the sto­ry unfolds in a female uni­verse where a sis­ter hides her broth­er in a bas­ket woven by their moth­er deter­mined to save her child from Pharaoh’s men,” and where, as Yolen explains in her after­word, the child’s moth­er will return to nurse him. Le’s pic­ture of Pharaoh’s daugh­ter cradling her new son as she stands in the water sur­round­ed by the folds of her white robe and the Nile’s foliage is a pow­er­ful image of mater­nal love. Although the book clos­es with Miriam’s con­fi­dent asser­tion that some day all the world/​will know my brother’s name,” Yolen and Le have pre­sent­ed the ear­ly life of a woman who will also change history.

Miri­am at the Riv­er is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes an explana­to­ry after­word, Where This Sto­ry Comes From.”

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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