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The Rainbow Troops: A Novel Paperback – February 11, 2014
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“Hirata's writing is as brilliant, beautiful, remarkable, and engrossing as the characters and the world he brings us. If you've ever been afraid to dream, or disbelieved in the true power of learning, read The Rainbow Troops and you'll be changed by the two guardians and their small number of students, whose intelligence and vibrancy will intoxicate you. This is a treasure from one of the largest Muslim societies in the world.” ―Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone
“The Rainbow Troops is a charming, funny, moving story about growing up and going to school on the island of Belitong in Indonesia. The Rainbow Troops are students in a poor, beleaguered village school, run by a pair of courageous and generous teachers who protect and champion their tiny class. I loved reading these stories about brave, smart, resourceful kids, set in a magical landscape that includes clouds, crocodiles, and shamans, as well as tin mining, politics, and regional school competitions.” ―Roxana Robinson, author of Cost
About the Author
Andrea Hirata is an Indonesian writer. He was a participant in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2010. His first novel, The Rainbow Troops (Laskar Pelangi), sold more than five million copies in Indonesia, making him the country's bestselling writer of all time, as well as its first to enjoy truly international success: The Rainbow Troops has been published or is forthcoming in twenty-three countries and counting. Hirata has written three sequels to The Rainbow Troops: Sang Pemimpi (The Dreamer), Edensor, and Maryama Karpov. He lives in Indonesia.
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On his first day at Belitong's only free school, Muhammadiyah Elementary, Ikal breathes a sigh of relief when the tenth child the school needs to remain operational appears at enrollment at the last minute, saving him from being sent to work as a helper at the grocery market or a coolie (labourer) for the miners or fishermen to supplement his family's meagre income. As he takes his seat in the ramshackle building which contains not much more than a chalkboard and a few desks and chairs he marvels at the opportunity he has been given, ignoring the leaking roof, "...a roof with leaks so large that students see planes flying in the sky and have to hold umbrellas while studying on rainy days", crumbling concrete floors and missing wall planks. In front of Ikal stands fifteen year old Bus Mus, the new class teacher, and school supervisor, Pak Harfan. Beside him sits nine other children, the Rainbow Troops.
Though simply written, this is an inspiring tale of struggle against adversity told with warmth, humour and tenderness. The children, the Rainbow Troops, will capture your heart as Ikal shares their stories, recounting his friends achievements, triumphs and tragedies as they struggle to claim their right to an education. There is Lintang who leaves his home at dawn to pedal the 40km to school each day, dodging crocodiles and wading through flood waters, never missing a day, Mahar whose imagination entertains them all with stories and Haran who sits, smiling happily, in class even though he doesn't understand a word. learning what becomes of these ten (later 11) children is both heartbreaking and revealing.
The Rainbow Troops is also a story of quiet rebellion. Belitong lies in the shadow of the giant PN tin mining company who, with government approval, strip the land of its riches while caring nothing for its native citizens. Muhammadiyah Elementary educates its students with few resources, it's teachers are unpaid and it is constantly threatened with closure but it fights the injustice with everything it has.
It is impossible to read The Rainbow Troops and not be moved by such an incredible story that is more fact than fiction. With memorable characters, irresistible charm and touching simplicity, this is a story that reminds us to appreciate what we have but also to strive for what we want most. This is a story the world should know.
'Laskar Pelangi' was a phenomenal success when published in Indonesia in 2005, an immediate bestseller, spawning a TV series and film. This is the first of four novels Hirata has penned in the interim, and the first to be translated into English, now on the cusp of global release.
'No matter how bad their circumstances, they always consider themselves fortunate. That is the use of religion.' (Does anybody feel reminded of a famous quote from another writer?)
Belitong, or Billiton, is an Indonesian island to the east of South Sumatra. It is not a poor island, due to its tin mines (the company BHP Billiton originated here), but it has its share of poor people, the laborers, fishermen, and farmers. The book was a commercial success in a country not famous for widespread reading. It is well worth our time.
(By the way, the island is also Conrad territory, see The Rescue.)
The main theme is poor kids' struggle for schooling: a small elementary school of the Muhammadiya persuasion, or rather, the story of a class of 10 students. One less and the school would have been shut down.
Why did the kids enroll in a Muhammadiya school? 3 reasons: first, the school charged no fees; second, the parents didn't want the devil to lead their kids astray; third, no other school would have accepted them.
Muhammadiya is a reformist Islamic organization in Indonesia, not a political party, but oriented towards education and charity. Motto: do what is good and prevent what is evil. It has 30 million members and runs thousands of schools. I know nothing negative about them, though I am not normally friendly towards religious organizations. However it is not as if they gave this school much in terms of resources... Apart from an heroical teacher, a 15 y old girl when it starts, who doesn't even get paid for the work, the school is little more than a shack.
It leads a bare knuckled struggle for survival and has to stand up against the tin mine and the government.
Hirata writes the former boy's memories, he does not impersonate the child that he was. We are not given pseudo childish observations, but those of an adult who looks back. That filter takes out some of the possible reservations that I might have had: there is no romancing or cutifying poverty here. There is also no whining. The tone is often humorous, and mostly practical and effective.
When the adolescent boy's 'love of his life' leaves the island to go to school in Jakarta, he discovers reading for consolation (via James Herriot!) and John Lennon's quote (that I put in the review title). A John Lennon poster goes up on the class room wall next to Bruce Lee.
If I need to find something to criticize, I would decide to doubt the rather extreme stories about the school's own geniuses, the artsy boy and the science wizard. Too good to be true? If it is non-fiction, we will believe it. It comes perilously near to standard underdog clichés though. It is saved by lack of sentimentality. Similarly, when the big fight against the mine's attack on the school starts, the story is in danger of drifting into kitschland. Such struggles are hard to write about in a satisfactory way.
Andrea Hirata also gives us outlines of a social history of tin mining and colonialism, and the ethnic as well as the social caste structure on the island. No tale of Indonesia that is worth its salt can make do without ghosts and shamans. Superstition is deeply anchored in people's lives and minds. The mining dredges and the crocodiles are the ogres of this island.
The book was so successful that Hirata gave up his job in the corporate world and became a professional writer. (Though his name suggests some kind of relation to either Italy or Japan, that doesn't seem to be the case. Indonesian names can be bewildering.)
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This book is universal, touching all ages, ganders and nations.