‘ Why would they do that?’ asked Kip.
‘Because the principal doesn’t want anyone to think for themselves,’ she explained. ‘All that talk about Verum Libertas, “truth is freedom”, those are empty words. They want you to believe their version of the truth, nobody else’s.’
Stephen Alter’s latest novel for young adults The Cloudfarers is set in Paramount school that is nestled high in the mountains, high enough to be enveloped in clouds. Kip is new to the school and was enrolled in it by his aunts who thought this would be the best education for him. Kip is now the aunts responsibility, given that his parents had been whisked away by the police who accused them of financial irregularities at the bank where they were employed. At the school he befriends a gentle giant of a classmate called Scruggs, who in turn introduces him to Meghna and Juniper. They are a reticent bunch of children as evident from their demeanour but they take a shine to Kip. Within a very short span of time the children are trusted friends.
Once upon a time the 100-year-old school used to be a lively, thriving and vibrant place but no more. It is a tyrannical establishment where students are frog marched from one activity to the next. Playtime is a bizarre brute game where no rules apply and is aptly called “War”. It is played by both boys and girls students who are cheered on by the school teachers. The plot moves fast. Soon Kip along with his new found friends hatch a plan to escape the oppressive school environment. As they run towards freedom they are pursued by the principal and his colleagues.
The Cloudfarers is a slim novella but packs quite a punch with its worldly wisdom. The story zips despite the convenient conclusion. It has all the predictable tropes of a school story lulling the reader into a familiar comfort zone. Yet this satirical novel written explicitly with the young in mind exposes the modus operandi of how dictators operate to ensure smooth functioning of systems. The Cloudfarers encourages youngsters to be inquisitive and seek answers for themselves rather than relying on being spoon fed information particularly by draconian figures of authority. It is also essential and empowering to recognise these autocrats for what they are and learn to challenge their authority. It is possible to do so by exercising one’s free will.
The Cloudfarers is essential reading.
Stephen Alter The Cloudfarers Puffin Books, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 180 Rs 199
27 March 2018