Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

After the Ashes

After the Ashes

Sara K. Joiner
Historical Fiction
For ages 9 to 12
Holiday House, 2015   ISBN: 978-0823434411

When she was a child, no one had a problem with Katrien playing with the native children in Anjer, the Javanese town where she lives. She was allowed to be who she wanted to be, and the children she spent time with accepted her. Then, when she was ten, Katrien’s best friend, Brigitta, turned against her, and ever since that time the girls in Katrien’s social circle have not wanted to have anything to do with her. Brigitta made sure of that.

Katrien tried not to mind losing her best friend, and since then she has spent more time with Slamet, the family cook’s son, who has been Katrien’s friend since she was very little. Katrien does not know much Javanese and Slamet’s Dutch is rather basic, but they manage to communicate, and Slamet happily goes into the jungle with Katrien when she goes there to find beetles to add to her collection.

Being very scientifically minded, Katrien is enamored with the concept of natural selection, which she has read about in Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species. She has read the book several times and has committed many passages from the book to memory. Katrien hopes to be able to ‘see’ natural selection at work in the jungle near her home by studying rhinoceros beetles.

Unfortunately, Katrien’s aunt, Tant Greet, who came to Java to help care for her after her mother died does not think that a thirteen year old girl should spend her time exploring the jungle with a native boy. Instead, she feels that Katrien should be friends with “polite and kind and respectful” girls like Brigitta; girls who are ladylike and who always look pretty, neat, and tidy; girls who do not seek out and collect insects to add to her collection. Katrien would rather do just about anything than be friends with Brigitta. Why should she have anything to do with a mean, spiteful girl whose head is full of frivolities.

The more Katrien and Brigitta clash, the stricter Tante Greet and Katrien’s father become with her. Her time in the jungle is restricted, she is expected to help Tante in the house, and she is not allowed to spend time with Slamet anymore. Every time the two girls come together they have a fight, and Katrien feels that no one listens to her side of the story. Everyone thinks that the fights are always Katrien’s fault and that Brigitta is never to blame for what happens. The situation makes Katrien’s blood boil with rage and frustration.

Katrien’s personal woes are not the only problems that she has to contend with. Ever since Katrien and her family went to visit Batavia for a vacation in June, Krakatau, the volcanic island forty miles away from Anjer, has been spewing clouds of ash. With the exception of one family who have experienced a volcanic eruption many years ago in another part of Java, no one in Anjer seems to be very concerned about what is going on, which Katrien finds strange. After all, Krakatau was said to be extinct and yet it clearly is not. While Katrien was in Batavia an earthquake rocked that city, and at the same time ash from Krakatau fell on Anjer. Katrien cannot help wondering if these two events are connected.

At the end of August, on a blistering hot day, Krakatau begins to erupt. Soon ash in enormous quantities is falling on Anjer. Katrien and Tante Greet take refuge in the family home. They hope that Katrien’s father, who was heading for the docks the last time they saw him, is safe. The morning after the island started to erupt they hear a terrible sound. Water is coming their way, lots of water. A huge wave is heading straight for Anjer.

Katrien and Tante Greet run, but the wave is too fast. Katrien suggests that they climb a tree but her aunt cannot do it. She is too exhausted and not strong enough to get up into the branches. Tante Greet urges Katrien up the tree and her niece does what she is told. She manages to get up to a high branch just as the water reaches her aunt, who is then swept away.

When the wave recedes, much of Anjer has been destroyed and the only person Katrien finds whom she knows is Brigitta. Brigitta’s family members are all dead, and Katrien fears that her father and Tante Greet are also gone. Though they have lost so much, the girls still bicker and snap at each other. Katrien cannot believe that Brigitta is the only person from her old life who is still alive. Why her?

The volcano keeps erupting and Katrien thinks that the best thing to do is to head inland, into the jungle, where the great waves, if they come back, will not be able to reach them. Brigitta fights her every step of the way, but in the end it turns out that Katrien was right. More tsunamis come and the two girls manage to survive only because Katrien forces Brigitta to climb up yet another tree. Clinging to a branch, they are battered by sea water, but somehow they hold on. When it is over the girls have to figure out what they are going to do next. They have no food, no fresh water, and they have no idea if anyone in Anjer is still alive.

This fascinating, and often heartbreaking work of historical fiction gives readers the opportunity to ‘witness’ what it was like to experience the 1883 eruption of Krakatau. It is interesting to see how Katrien, who is so interested in evolution, evolves herself as the story unfolds. She begins to appreciate that her problems with Brigitta are not only Brigitta’s fault. Katrien’s antisocial and often inward looking behavior is also to blame for the rift that developed between them. She has to consider that perhaps her Tante Greet was right and that it is important not to judge people and to been empathetic and compassionate.