Book Review: The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata

The Rainbow Troops

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review copy courtesy of Random House Books Australia and The Reading Room

The Blurb

“Originally written in Bahasa, The Rainbow Troops was first published in 2005 and sold a record-breaking five million copies in Indonesia. The novel tells the inspiring and closely autobiographical tale of the trials and tribulations that the ten motley students (nicknamed the Rainbow Troops) and two teachers from Muhammadiyah Elementary School on Belitong Island, Indonesia, undergo to ensure the continuation of the children’ s education. The poverty-stricken school suffers the constant threat of closure by government officials, greedy corporations, natural disasters and the students’ own lack of self-confidence. The story is written from the perspective of Ikal, who is six years old when the novel opens. Just as the author himself did as a young man, Ikal goes to college and eventually wins a scholarship to go abroad, beating incredible odds to become a writer.

This delightful, inspiring book has a fable-like quality that reminds us why we love stories— heartwarming stories, funny stories, stories that remind us of the precious things in life. Ikal and his band of plucky cohorts face obstacles large and small, and the reader can’ t help but root for them to beat the odds and get the education— and life— they deserve. The setting is as compelling and memorable as the characters, and a rare window into a world we know little about.

Summary and Thoughts

Isn’t it amazing how we, living in first world countries, take education for granted, when all over the world there are still others who sacrifice so much to gain an education which should, in actual fact, be a right and not a privilege?

The island of Pulau Belitong in Indonesia is one such island and we follow the story of ten children (who become known as “the Rainbow Troops”) from extremely poor families attending a school which is nothing more than a shack, the only foundations: two extremely dedicated teachers who receive no monetary gain in return, but who give these children hope for a future which will enable them to rise above their circumstances, thereby allowing them to realise a life beyond those of their uneducated parents, who are largely store helpers, labourers (“coolies”) or fishermen working for a pittance.

Without many of the every day conveniences we take for granted, these children love learning and, with hopes and dreams of a better future firmly in place, albeit with limited learning materials, beat-up bicycles for transport, clothing without buttons, great distances to travel to attend school - sometimes encountering dangerous situations along the way - and a greedy government official who consistently tries to eradicate their little school thereby obliterating their only chance at education, it is ultimately these children and their faithful teachers that bind this little school together.

We see Ikal experiencing his first taste of love and whose greatest aspiration is to become a writer, failing which he’ll be a badminton player; Lintang encounters many dangerous situations on the eighty kilometre round-trip he travels by bicycle to attend school, but he is determined to defend his father’s dignity and also become Belitong’s first Mathematician; and dear Harun, afflicted with Downs Syndrome but who constantly has a smile on his face wants to be just like Trapani, a perfectionist whose clothes are always spotless.

Told in the first person narrative, inspired by his own life and written as a tribute to his teacher, Andrea Hirata recounts a life of abject poverty, compounded by educational and work limitations, despite the fact that the island was rich in natural resources (some of the biggest tin mines being located there) but which, unfortunately and along with its inhabitants, had been exploited by the larger companies in their pursuit of wealth.

Simply written and articulated with warmth and charm, this is an inspiring novel about ten children who fly in the face of adversity by fighting against the injustices they encounter with humour and good spirit, to claim an education which, by rights, they are entitled to, while proving that faith, courage and hope, can overcome many things.

I would like to thank both the publisher, Random House Books Australia and The Reading Room for providing me with an Uncorrected Bound Proof of a novel which is likely to become a classic.

About the Author and Laskar Pelangi

Andrea Hirata, born in Gantong, Belitong, East Sumatra, Indonesia, received a scholarship to study a master’s degree at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, majoring in economic theory and graduated with honours.

After finishing his studies, he returned to Indonesia and worked for Indonesia’s biggest telecommunication company, TELKOM but then in 2004, volunteered for tsunami disaster relief in Aceh. Whilst there, he saw ruined schools that reminded him of his old promise to his elementary school teacher, Muslimah. Back then, when Hirata was in the fifth grade, he made a promise that one day he would write a book for his teacher. Thus his first novel was born.

The novel is called Laskar Pelangi: The Rainbow Troops and, whilst never intended for mainstream publication , is now the biggest selling Indonesian novel ever. Having sold over five million copies, it has now been adapted for a feature film, television series and musical theatre.

Hirata has contributed significantly to the development of modern Indonesian literature and, by sharing his story, has had a great impact on tourism, with special tours enabling you to retrace the steps of this novel, now in place. Scholarships, too, are more easily obtainable.

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