Mysterious traveller by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham
Ill. by P J Lynch. Walker Books, 2013. ISBN 9781 4063 3707 5.
(Age: 8+) Highly recommended. African story. Responsibility. When an old desert guide, Issa, finds a baby protected from the sand storm by a camel, he takes her home, raising her as a gift from the desert, and later when he becomes blind, she repays him by being the guide for him, describing for him where they are, enabling him to continue guiding people across the vastness ahead.
But one day a stranger with two servants asks him to guide them across the Bitter Mountains. This is not the usual route, and one that is dangerous, but they need to go quickly. On realising he is blind, they disparage him and storm off, deciding to find their own way. But Issa knows they will get into trouble so he and the girl set off to find them. saving them from the fierce sandstorm. This sees the young man return to Issa's house alone, to apologise and offer money for being saved. But seeing the girl's pendant, pieces fall into place about Mariama's background.
This beautiful story, wonderfully illustrated by Lynch, will encourage readers to read it over again, as they ponder just how the girl got to be in the desert and why the camel was so brave. The acceptance by Issa of the baby he finds in the desert, his responsibility in caring for her and then her being able to repay his kindness is a theme that carries the story along and remains with the reader.
The background to this small family, of Issa saying his prayers, of their kindness to strangers, of not wanting payment for saving the lives of the three, all point to a strong value system, and underpins their basic humanity, regardless of which religion they belong to. This is a wonderful tale, one that could be read and retold for its own sake, one that could be the springboard for discussions about responsibility, or about Africa where the story is set, the descriptions and illustrations giving an unforgettable background to the events as they unfold.