Review: Storm by Donna Jo Napoli

Storm Book Cover Storm
Donna Jo Napoli

A sixteen-year-old stowaway discovers her destiny on Noah’s ark in this riveting reimagining from award-winning author Donna Jo Napoli, available in time for the March 2014 major motion picture Noah.

The rain starts suddenly, hard and fast. After days of downpour, her family lost, Sebah takes shelter in a tree, eating pine cones and the raw meat of animals that float by. With each passing day, her companion, a boy named Aban, grows weaker. When their tree is struck by lightning, Sebah is tempted just to die in the flames rather than succumb to a slow, watery death. Instead, she and Aban build a raft. What they find on the stormy seas is beyond imagining: a gigantic ark. But Sebah does not know what she’ll find on board, and Aban is too weak to leave their raft.

Themes of family, loss, and ultimately, survival and love make for a timeless story. Donna Jo Napoli has imagined a new protagonist to tell the story of Noah and his ark. As rain batters the earth, Noah, his family, and hordes of animals wait out the storm, ready to carry out their duty of repopulating the earth. Hidden below deck…is Sebah.

Review:

Even if you didn’t grow up going to church or studying the Bible, chances are you’ve probably heard the story of Noah’s Ark. Whether you believe it really happened or consider it just another flood myth, you’re likely familiar with the story of how God spoke to Noah and warned him that a great flood would destroy the earth. God directed Noah to build a gigantic boat and gather two of each kind of animal, one male and one female, onto that boat. Once Noah had done so, rain began to fall and didn’t cease for 40 days and 40 nights.

Donna Jo Napoli’s novel Storm delves into this story of Noah’s Ark, looking at the events of the great flood from the point of view of Sebah, a fictional stowaway who survives the deluge by sneaking through one of the ark’s portholes. Sebah hides from Noah and his family, fearing she will be thrown overboard upon discovery. As she watches the family and animals go about their daily business, she realizes just how much the family’s faith will be tested by the trial and what it means to survive and begin again in a world that has been destroyed and made anew.

What I love about Napoli’s work is the way she takes a familiar story and makes you look at it a whole new way. Have you ever really considered what day-to-day life would be like trapped on an ark? Can you imagine the tedium? The strangeness of knowing your family are the only surviving members of the human race? Can you comprehend just how much rain it would take to destroy the planet? And, once the rain ends, do you have any idea just how long it would take for the water to recede enough for the world to be inhabitable again? Can you imagine what said world would look like?

These things never occurred to me before, but they certainly have to Napoli. She paints a very convincing picture of the minutia of living on an ark with no one but your inlaws and hundreds of wild animals for company. She details the logistics of housing and caring for a literal boatload of animals: the dung that would have to be shoveled out each day, the stores of food needed to feed the animals. She writes about what the extended captivity is like for creatures accustomed to roaming the earth freely and describes what it does to their eating patterns, their health, their spirits.

The animals aren’t the only creatures that must adjust to a whole new way of life. Noah and his family have troubles of their own, which extend beyond the obvious challenge of caring for all the Earth’s species. The fear, stress, and uncertainty take a toll on the family, driving wedges between spouses and sowing seeds of doubt and distrust. Sebah, though not directly part of this action, observes all from her hiding spot and serves as a great lens through which to view the events of the book.

As much as I enjoyed the in-depth study of life on the ark, there were a few things that turned me off. The fact that the book is set in Biblical times, when cleanliness and hygiene were not top priorities, resulted in some scenes that triggered my gag reflex. Sebah, living in the bowels of the ark with the animals, witnesses – and participates in – lots of nasty stuff, like eating bird eyeballs for hydration, picking through dung for seeds, squeezing lice and ticks, etc. There are also lengthy descriptions of bodily functions and, even more disturbingly, lots and lots of monkey sex. And monkey hand jobs. And monkey masturbation. Just way more about monkeys than I’d ever, ever want to know.

This – not the monkey sex specifically, but all of the details mentioned in the previous paragraph – is what kept Storm from earning a higher rating. It’s not just that these details made me squeamish (though that is the case); it’s more that the prevalence of these behaviors, which are second nature to Sebah, really emphasize how different she and I are from one another. The fact that Sebah is perfectly comfortable twisting the head off of a bird and then eating that bird raw made it difficult to forget that we were two very different people, both clearly products of our times and with little common ground.

Still, I do recommend giving Storm a try, particularly if you’re a fan of retellings. Napoli is a master of the genre, and I will never turn down a chance to read her work.

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