An adroit parable in the manner of The Pilgrim's Progress, neatly done. Young Kaila lives with the mud people in the Mud Forest, where sunlight can never enter, the vegetation is lifeless, and all the people are coated with thick mud. Kaila, whose name means ``filled with fright,'' is often abused by her family and called stupid and ugly by her mother. One day she comes upon the heart-stoppingly beautiful Mystical River, lined with bright flowers and flowing each day under a blessing of beaming sun. There, she meets Juta, a kind man whose name means ``wise teacher,'' and Juta tells her that she must take a journey down the Mystical River to meet the Spirit of the Great Falls. Later, he gives Kaila a very, very small boat and a life jacket and sends her forth on the river. At first, Kaila faints with fear, but then she passes safely over the falls. When she awakens, the mama-like/papa-like voice of the Great Spirit speaks to her from the shimmering, crystalline mist of the waterway, cleansing her of her pernicious self-imageof all the bad thoughts that must be brought out into the light, then banished. Many days of self-revelation are required before Kaila can at last be healed of guilt over sexual abuse, a healing that makes for the story's most powerful moment (borrowed from Pilgrim's crossing of the River Styx). Overcoming denial, the girl goes home to help her family heal itself, although Juta has admitted that Kaila's parents are themselves beyond recovery. First-novelist Mark seems set on coming to terms symbolically with the South's ``original sin'' of racism and prejudice. The result doesn't have the hallucinatory, flesh-and-blood power of Bunyan, but it could catch on.
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