Thursday, March 27, 2014

387 (2014 #15). The Good Braider

by Terry Farish, 
read by Cherise Boothe

This is the story of Viola, a young female refugee from the war-torn South Sudan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and how she adapts to her first year in America.

The book begins with a quote from The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski:  "The spirit of Africa...always appears in the guise of an elephant."  The elephant motif appears throughout the book, including in the names of its three parts.

Part One is Elephant Bones, covering Viola's life and escape from Juba, Sudan, to Cairo, Egypt, from 1999 to 2002.  This part of the book is the longest at 79 pages, but I found it the least compelling.  I would have liked more detail on just what the family went through in their escape.  I didn't really get a feel for life in the Sudan either.  Perhaps this is because the author, Terry Farish, has not been there.  Before listening to the audiobook, I thought perhaps Farish might be a Sudanese refugee, but it turns out she is a white woman who has only gotten as close as Kenya, so perhaps that is why this portion of the book is not as strong.

The book gets much better, though, in the last two parts.  Viola and her mother are refugees in Portland, Maine, and Farish used to work with Sudanese refugees in Portland, so she is writing about what she knows. Part Two is called Elephant Footsteps, and Part Three is Elephant Songs. The division between this and the previous part is the incident foreshadowed in a short segment just before Part One.  It's also a significant turning point in the story, one that I won't spoil here, except to say that it's a good illustration of the difficulties many refugees have in adapting, especially parents used to having more control of their children in their home countries.

Hair-braiding also symbolic in this book. Viola used to braid hair in the Sudan, but stops doing so or even caring for her own hair as she escapes that country.  In an interview, Farish said Viola "has suffered great loss, the strands of her life, and the braiding to her is like the strands she can no longer bring together. In Cairo, her friend tells her, 'You will braid when your are ready. Braiding is from our culture.' I wanted braiding to be a metaphor for Viola's evolving skill in leaning to live in a new culture. Braiding also represents her deep bond with her mother."

The book reflects reality with Viola being raped by a soldier in Sudan.  The scene is not graphic, but I think that (and the incident referred to earlier) make this book better suited for high school age and up, rather than the age 13 and up advertised on the audiobook.  I would definitely recommend it for the older students as well as adults, and it could be the basis of a great multidisciplinary study unit.  The author provides both an educator's guide and a discussion guide as well as other great resources on her website devoted to this book.  A historical note at the end of the book provides some context for the novel in the region's recent history.

I was surprised to learn this book was written in free verse.  That isn't obvious in an audiobook, especially now that very short chapters, often with names (as a poem would have), have become quite common in so much fiction.  Actress Cherise Boothe is an excellent narrator - she uses just enough of an accent to make it clear Viola and her mother have not been in America long, while making Viola's cousin Jackie, for example, sound very Americanized.  Recorded Books as usual does its excellent quality audiobook production.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This audiobook was sent to me by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.  It will be donated to my university library.]

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