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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.