The Observer called The Explorer, about four children who escape a plane crash in the jungle, ‘a gripping story of survival and the tenacity of the human spirit against all the odds’ and it became a Sunday Times Children’s book of the year. It is certainly a rivetting read. When a small plane on its way to Manaus crashes in the Amazonian jungle the pilot, whose apparent heart attack has caused the crash, is killed but his four child passengers survive.
They are, however, stranded in the middle of the jungle with little hope of rescue or getting to their onward travel or their parents. There’s Fred, the eldest, son of a high powered businessman, Constantia, who hates her name and insists on being called Con, and two who speak both English and Portuguese, a girl, Lila, and her five year old brother, Max, children of scientists working in Brazil. After the crash the children run, first from the fire caused by the crash and then from a snake with a head the size of a fist, to become even more lost than they were before. They have no food or drink, nowhere to sleep and very little hope of rejoining civilisation. They decide to try, however and set off into the unknown, Fred’s pragmatism and Lila’s local knowledge helping to bring them through. First they find, then rethatch with leaves, a den in which to stay; they make fire with Fred’s watch and a flint; they eat strange things - cocoa beans mashed with the grubs which live in them and made into a kind of pancake, and finally Fred builds a raft so that they can float downriver towards Manaus. As their survival skills improve they meet a really strange man who lives in a ruined city in the jungle although he appears totally unprepared to help them.
What makes this book stand out from other adventure stories is the way Rundell helps us to understand the main characters in the book and we gradually get to know them as rounded people, Rundell making subtly plain the love and loss which has made them what they are.
Fred does not know if his father loves him or not (he usually lets his secretary buy Fred’s presents and sends him away to boarding school) and so Fred is desperate to make a name for himself as an explorer and thus impress his father. This causes him to clash with the mysterious stranger in the ruined city.
Con is an unfriendly girl with a poisonous tongue. We understand this from the very start when they’ve just escaped separately from the blazing plane and Fred has heard her and Lila in the bushes.
‘You survived!’ he said. ‘Obviously we did,’ said the bush. ‘otherwise we’d be less talkative.’ Gradually, however, we learn why Con is so prickly.
Lila, about Fred’s age, is kind and patient and her scientific background is a great help in the survival stakes; and Max is a typical grotty 5 year old. He’s prone to screaming matches and being generally objectionable, saying things like, If you come any closer I’ll wee on you, but we soon realise that his attitude is born of fear and the lack of all his usual family comforts and his parents. He provides a lot of the humour in the book with a surprisingly old fashioned turn of phrase at times.
‘You should probably blow your nose,’ said Fred. ‘I don’t blow my nose,’ said Max ‘ It’s not a thing I do.’
And we also get to discover some of the background and motives of the mysterious inhabitant of the ruined city and whether or not he has a heart.
So all in all a very worthwhile read. The Observer finished its review by saying that it was not only a gripping story of survival but a hymn to hope, love and courage from one of our most talented writers for children.