BOOK REVIEW

Susan Minot's 'Thirty Girls' brings Kony's African atrocities into stark focus

Through poignant fiction, the experiences of children captured by the Lord's Resistance Army


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Two years ago, an online campaign called "KONY2012" was started in a effort to bring attention to the atrocities committed by warlord Joseph Kony in parts of central Africa. Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) abducted children and forced them into service as soldiers. Kony and the child soldiers of the LRA terrorized the people of Uganda for more than two decades.


"THIRTY GIRLS"
By Susan Minot.
Knopf ($26.95).

Since then, public awareness for the issue has again declined because of the rush of more recent events. However, Susan Minot's latest novel, "Thirty Girls," brings the issue back into stark focus through her poignant fictional telling of the experiences of the children captured by the LRA, and the journalist who endeavored to tell their story.

The main narrative is based on a 1996 incident in which the LRA pillaged a girls' boarding school in northern Uganda, kidnapping more than 100 girls in the process. In the novel, as in real life, the headmistress of the school follows the kidnappers into the bush and convinces an officer to return most of the girls, but is forced to leave 30 of them behind.

Fifteen-year-old Esther, one of the girls left behind, becomes eyes and ears for the reader as the horrors of the subsequent events unfold through her eyes. She becomes witness to atrocities that no one, especially a child, should ever have to see -- eventually escaping and finding herself in a rehabilitation camp called the Kiryandongo Rehabilitation Center

It is in the camp that she meets Jane Wood, a middle-age writer looking to get away after her ex-husband -- a drug addict about whom she still cared -- died of a drug overdose.

Jane's story starts when she arrives in Kenya, and the book chronicles her journey with a group of eclectic, yet predictable, travelers -- the carefree flirt, the artist, the American businessman, and the youthful adventurer -- as they make their way into Uganda to report upon the 30 girls who were taken from the St. Mary's of Aboke boarding school.

Throughout much of the book, Jane's concerns revolve, for the most part, around her despair over her loss of youth -- and her search for love and comfort -- as she finds herself involved with Harry, a young, easygoing, paragliding adventurer. Through this, Jane, whose story runs parallel to Esther's in alternating chapters, becomes a foil to the children about whom she has traveled to Africa to report.

Despite jumping between Esther's first person narrative, and Jane's third-person voice, the contrast between the two is effective in describing the bigger problems of the world. It is still able to give weight to Jane's everyday struggles because she's a character with whom many readers can probably identify.

Jane's concerns do seem frivolous at times because her storyline is placed in contrast to Esther's. However, this does not detract from the overall theme of the novel -- particularly because Esther's story is so well written.

Indeed, while Jane's tale of middle-age renewal is relatable and compelling, the true heart of this novel comes from Esther and the children of the LRA. Ms. Minot captures their characters so effectively that, throughout many scenes, one almost forgets that these specific stories and children are fiction.

Esther is a stunning character whose strength and bravery is an inspiration to readers. Taken from her school, and her life, and forced to witness and commit violent crimes, she manages to maintain her humanity through all of it.

In addition, Ms. Minot voices Esther with uncanny realism, finding a way to convey the fierce protectiveness and loyalty she feels toward the other girls, the hardened nature of a girl who has seen too much, and the innocence of a child who just wants to see her family.

Even from her place of relative safety in the rehabilitation camp from where she recounts much of her story, Esther's residual anger and hatred, and her struggle to find peace in civilian life, come through.

This book is not for those looking for a casual lighthearted read. Ms. Minot, who traveled to Africa to report on these atrocities, does not shy from describing, in detail, the horrors of life under the LRA.

Nonetheless, "Thirty Girls" conveys an important story that people need to hear, and the author clearly endeavors to tell it as accurately as possible without sensationalizing or trivializing the suffering of the children. Both Esther and Jane's stories are given the respect they deserve.


Katerina Sarandou is a writing major at Chatham University (ksarandou@chatham.edu).

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