Alma: The Wind Rises

Written by François Place (illus.) Holly James (trans.) Timothee de Fombelle
Review by Ann Lazim

It’s 1786 when this story begins in a remote valley in West Africa where Alma and her family are living a seemingly idyllic and isolated life. Alma’s mother is one of the last remaining Oko people while some of her multilingual father’s past comes to light as the novel progresses. Alma’s younger brother Lam leaves the valley in a canoe, and their father goes to try and retrieve him. Alma soon follows with her bow.

Several chapters in, the narrative shifts to a vessel heading for Africa, soon revealed to be a slave ship. On board is Joseph, a boy with a mission. Thereafter a range of characters are introduced, many with motivations of malice and greed, some searching for wealth, some seeking those lost to them. The heinous slave trade is at the centre of this novel and the roles of Europeans and Africans in this are brought to light.

The use of the present tense and strong dialogue bring pace and immediacy to a long and complex story which I would recommend for young people of 11+. Full page black and white illustrations by one of France’s most lauded children’s illustrators invite close examination for their intricate detail.

Few children’s books are translated from French to English. However, de Fombelle is one of the few whose work has been made available. This novel is the first in a proposed trilogy of which the second has already been published in France, and I look forward to finding out more about the exploits of brave and bold Alma, whose name in the Oko language means “free”. But it’s the kind of freedom that doesn’t exist in any other language. It’s a rare word that describes an indestructible sort of freedom, “one that you hold inside you forever.”