Title: The Rainbow Troops
Author: Andrea Hirata
Publisher: Random House Asutralia
Read: February 27 - March 03, 2013
Ikal is a student at Muhammadiyah Elementary, on the Indonesian island of Belitong, where graduating from sixth grade is considered a major achievement. His school is under constant threat of closure. In fact, Ikal and his friends - a group called The Rainbow Troops - face threats from every angle: pessimistic, corrupt government officials; greedy corporations hardly distinguishable from the colonialism they've replaced; deepening poverty and crumbling infrastructure; and their own faltering self-confidence. But in the form of two extraordinary teachers, they also have hope, and Ikal's education is an uplifting one, in and out of the classroom.
You will cheer for Ikal and his friends as they defy the town's powerful tin miners. Meet his first love - a hand with half-moon fingernails that passes him the chalk his teacher sent him to buy. You will roar in support of Lintang, the class's barefoot maths genius, as he bests the rich company children in an academic challenge.
First published in Indonesia, The Rainbow Troops went on to sell over 5 million copies. Now it is set to captivate readers across the globe. This is classic story-telling: an engrossing depiction of a world not often encountered, bursting with charm and verve.
Andrea Hirata’s Rainbow Troops is both humbling and inspiring, a reminder that there is a lot we take for granted in this country which is a privilege in other, less fortunate places – such as the right to free education. Written as homage to his elementary school teacher and classmates, the story’s honesty and humour will warm your heart and leave you with a feeling of hope.
Born the son of a miner on the tiny Indonesian island of Belitong, on the East coast of Sumatra, six-year-old Ikal knows the huge sacrifice his parents are making to send one of their children to school in the hope of giving him a better future. On his first day at Muhammadiyah Elementary School, a poor, ramshackle building on the verge of collapse, Ikal sighs in relief as the target number of students is reached to keep the school open, giving them a chance to receive an education. There are ten students all up, only one of them female, all of them children of the poorest families on the island – fishermen, miners labourers and farmers, who can’t even afford school uniforms or books for their children. Their teacher, fifteen-year old Bu Mus, has to work as a seamstress at night to be able to survive on the minimal teacher’s wage she receives.
Despite the island’s mineral riches, none of the wealth filters through to its native inhabitants. Originally a British and then a Dutch colony, the riches are held by the large PN Mining Company, whilst most of the island’s inhabitants live in poverty, each generation repeating the same cycle of illiteracy and hard labour without a way of escaping. Muhammadiyah Elementary School, constantly threatened by closure by government officials or mining magnates, is so ramshackle that it faces the daily threat of collapse. And yet it offers a brighter future for the children who are lucky enough to be able to attend, instead of being sent off as cheap labourers like so many other children of the island. The students themselves, calling themselves the Rainbow Troops, are a colourful group – from the genius mathematician Lintang, who cycles 40km to school across crocodile-infested swamps every day, to Mahar, who is drawn to the paranormal and island mythology.
Based on Hirata’s own childhood experiences, the story is written in simple, conversational prose and has almost fable-like qualities as the author mixes facts with mythological elements prevalent in island culture. It is the story of hope and quiet rebellion as the teachers and students fight for and celebrate one of the most basic human rights – that of education. With poverty still one of the major obstacles to education in many countries around the globe today, this is a story which should be read by everyone to make them aware of the privileges we so often take for granted.
Never originally intended for publication, The Rainbow Troops has now become Indonesia’s best-selling novel in history, which has been translated into 19 languages and adapted for film, television and musical.
This book forms part of my 2013 Monthly Keyword Challenge - keyword "rainbow"; and the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge - "translated fiction".