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Mullumbimby, by Melissa Lucashenko.

April 24, 2014

Mullumbimby, by Melissa Lucashenko.  University of Queensland Press (2013), Kindle Edition, 288 pages.

AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS

FAVORITE

A beautiful, brilliant novel that provides insight into the life of a contemporary Indigenous woman, raising her daughter on the lands of her Bandjalung ancestors in northern New South Wales.

Melissa Lucashenko is the daughter of Indigenous and European parents. As a child, she could pass for white, but as an adult she has committed herself to the culture and values of Indigenous Australians. In doing so she challenges the assumed normality of whiteness. Her major character in Mullumbimby, Jo Breen, faces the same problems as many single mothers; coping with her teenage daughter, working to make ends meet, and deciding if she dares fall in love with a man again. Yet her perspective is shaped by what she learned from the Indigenous aunt who raised her. At her core, she views the world from an Indigenous perspective which shapes her values and her dreams. Her views and Lukashenko’s do not romanticize Indigenous life or view it as uniformly tragic.  They simply do not take European institutions and world views as the norm.

Jo has bought a small, neglected farm near Mullumbimby. She is working hard to restore it for herself, her daughter, her siblings, and her beloved horses. For her the land and its quietness give her a welcome space, away from the clamor of other people. Her daughter, Ellen, however, has just outgrown the sweet nature of her childhood and turned into a complaining adolescent, constantly blaming and challenging her mother. Jo struggles with how to protect and nurture her in this new phase.

Jo’s life is full of crises and tragedy as well as hope and joy. Although she had never wavered in her sense of herself as Indigenous, she moves into a stronger sense of belonging to an Indigenous community. Her aunt taught her the fundamental spirituality of her people.  She can meditate into a still listening place, similar to that of Buddhists and Quakers. When she listens, she can understand what she needs to know from the world around her. Her understanding of her world is neither “magical realism” nor the one mapped by white scientists.

Understandably, anger at what the Europeans have done to her and her people runs deep in Jo. She is quick to explode over the unfairness of white domination and to blame whites for her losses. Generally, she tries to keep the white establishment at a distance. Her anger does not stop her, however, from having white individuals as friends, though she may grumble about how their whiteness limits their understanding. At times Jo feels lonely, but she has a group of close friends and two siblings who share parts of her life.

When a handsome, educated, Indigenous man enters Jo’s life, she is slow to trust him or her love for him. He obviously loves her, but he is very wrapped up in a Native Land lawsuit over some land in the area. The angry and even violent conflict among Indigenous people over these issues was something I had never realized before reading this book. At times he disappoints her, leaving her and the reader unsure if he is going to remain in her and her daughter’s lives.

In Mullumbimby, Lucashenko has written an excellent and enjoyable novel, one that will hold readers’ attention and provide new insights into what it can mean to be an Indigenous Australian today. She has accomplished this in part by following closely what Jo is thinking and doing. Although the book is not written in first person, she uses the mix of languages that Jo would have used. Frankly I often found the prose difficult to follow. As a non-Australian, I stumbled over Indigenous words and unfamiliar plants and animals. I would have done better if I had realized that there was a glossary of in the back. (Reading the novel as an ebook, I didn’t examine it as carefully as I do hard copy.) Still I am glad that Lucashenko chose to use this mix of languages. It helped me move away from the English I assume is universal and into a world where I am the outsider.

Mullumbimby will inevitably be compared with Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, as both books are now appearing in competition for literary awards. (Ironically, Lucashenko says that Wright urged her to write this novel. ) I loved and learned from both books, but they are very different. Wright’s new novel is a mythic, universal call for people to recognize what it means to be displaced as the Australian Indigenous people have been. Lucashenko writes a sharply realistic novel about a particular person and place. Her book will probably be more widely read and discussed in the Indigenous community while Wright’s will appeal more to the international literary community. Both are deeply needed and both need to be widely read.

I strongly recommend Mullumbimby to all readers, especially those interested in how people retain their identity and values on the edges of a dominant culture.

See my review of Wright’s The Swan Book here.  I also found Lucashenko’s website worth reading.

A Different Sky, by Meira Chand.

April 21, 2014

A Different Sky, by Meira Chand.   Random House UK (2011), Paperback, 488 pages.

A big historical novel spanning the lives of Indian, Chinese, and Eurasian families living in Singapore before, during, and after World War II.

Meira Chand is an accomplished storyteller, able to weave her big cast of characters into a coherent plot. Her style is simple and straight forward, and reflects extensive knowledge of places and times recreated in her fiction. She is the daughter of Indian and Swiss parents. As an adult she has lived for extended times in Japan and India and written historical novels set in both. She now lives in Singapore, and has written A Different Sky about people from various races and cultures who lived there during a critical point of historic change.

To Chand, Singapore is not a place with traditions and cultures of its own. Instead it is a place where people have come from all directions to try and achieve their dreams. By the 1920s, when her novel begins, it had become home to various groups each living within their own enclaves. Her novel highlights the stories of families from three of these groups. A wealthy Chinese family strictly maintains its traditional ways, but faces financial decline. A young man from Indian who has arrived in the city with nothing begins his successful pursuit of wealth. A Eurasian widow with a son and a daughter runs a boarding house for English men working in Singapore. Like other Eurasians, her family is descended from centuries of Malayans and European traders. British and Japanese characters weave in and out of the narrative. As individuals, they are treated sympathetically, even when others of their nationalities act as villains.
World War II had a profound impact on Singapore and on the families at the heart of Chand’s novel. When the British were driven from the city, the Japanese established a government willing to torture and kill. Suffering is great, touching the families on whom Chand focuses. Loyalties are not always black and white, however. Strange alliances are created, including those who see Japan as a help in ridding the region of the British. When the Japanese are defeated and run out of the city, the British try to re-establish their former dominance. Instead, they encounter resistance from various groups wanting local independence and an end to the inequality that thrived under British dominance. Reformers, socialists and communists disagree on what they wanted, creating new lines of conflict. Ethnic boundaries softened. Those who had suffered torture, been forced into hard labor, or sought refuge among the communists struggled to recover from their traumas. But even for them, change is happening. Whatever the future, Singapore and its residents were moving forward under “A Different Sky.”

Chand writes the type of historical fiction that does more than use historical events as a backdrop. She structures her fiction around actual historical events and includes a few individuals who emerge from the historical record. She differentiates herself from historians, however.
Academic record and scholarly investigation constructs the shape of the past as accurately as can be done. Historical fiction attempts to create a sense of experience of that past, to bring it alive in the present and to show its enduring relevance. Knowing almost nothing about Southeast Asia, I was grateful for her ability to achieve this goal. I learned a great deal about the time and place about which she writes. Chand’s novel also reveals how complex and messy history can be and how simplistic our historical categories often are. This lesson is relevant today as we interact with an expanded range of peoples who are both members of particular historical traditions and individuals who may or may not reflect those traditions, values and practices.

I heartily recommend A Different Sky to all readers who enjoy epic historical fiction that helps them understand different times and places. I especially recommend it to those interested in Singapore, in World War II, or in the mix of people in Southeast Asia and the Pacific more generally. It belongs on my growing list of books that deal with what happens to families when war arrives at their door.

The Amado Women, by Desiree Zamorano.

April 19, 2014

The Amado Women, by Desiree Zamorano.  Cinco Puntos Press (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.

An intense story about an Hispanic family in Los Angeles–a mother, her three daughters, and her two granddaughters–who face tragedies, fight with each other, and work together for shared goals.

The women of the Amado family are all different. Each hides her own secrets and is sometimes hostile to the others. But they are bound together because they are mothers, daughters, and sisters. Mercy is the mother, divorced from a weak, useless man. At sixty, she keeps herself looking attractive and is deeply involved in her third-grade classroom. Celeste is the oldest sister, bright, sophisticated, wealthy, and aloof. Sylvia is the married one, with two young daughters, Miriam and Becky, and an abusive husband. Nataly is the youngest, an artist and waitress who can’t get her life together. At first, tragedy seems to make them less able to cooperate, but gradually they share secrets and struggles.

Their story is full of crises that pull readers along. The family is Hispanic and has lived in the US for generations. They still enjoy bits of their culture and its distinctive foods, and they bristle when they feel put down for their ethnicity. In other ways, their lives are not very different from other women in this country, although none of us wants to share their particular crises. Like many of us, they all bear heavy, unrealistic burdens of guilt that they need to release. Much of their story is about what it means to be a daughter or a mother or a sister. As Mercy reflects about her grown daughters, she realizes that a mother loses her daughters everyday as they grow and change into their own persons.

Like the women in her book, Desiree Zamorano is Hispanic. She believes that Latina women need more visibility in our culture and is doing her part to promote their inclusion through her writing. She has also written a mystery series featuring an Hispanic woman detective. In addition, she teaches at Occidental College, where she fosters community literacy. Her comments in the Los Angeles Times and on NPR are some of the ways she fights against injustice and inequality.

I am glad to recommend The Amado Women to readers who enjoy exciting, domestic stories.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, Texas, for sending me this ebook to review.

Who Owns American History? By Robert C. Post.

April 17, 2014

Who Owns American History? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History, by Robert C. Post.  Johns Hopkins University Press (2013), Hardcover, 400 pages

A history of the Smithsonian Institution and its ongoing debates about how to tell the story of our nation and who gets to control its exhibits.

Robert Post is a professional historian who worked at the Smithsonian from 1971 to 1996, years in which the institution underwent major changes and became the object of raucous criticism. In this book he traces its development and reveals the roots of the conflicts that occurred during his time there. He provides a detailed account of individuals who were there and how decisions were made. In doing so, he lays out some of the basic tensions which historical museums must resolve and which museum visitors should understand.

From its nineteenth-century beginning, there were debates about whether the Smithsonian should be primarily concerned with research and exploration or whether it should concentrate on exhibiting the objects that resulted. After the Civil War, attention focused on exhibits that would “educate and amuse.” Historical exhibits were created to show the evolution of technology from “primitive” to “modern.” Big corporate donors, emerging at the time, provided large sums of money to display the value and achievements of their industry or even their particular company. Arguments arose over conflicts between donor’s version of a story and that of scholars and other outsiders. Questions of who owned an exhibit were anything but theoretical.

The Smithsonian and its historical displays continued to grow and to laud the progress of the American nation through World War II. Then the Cold War provided new impetus for displaying American superiority especially in the technology it produced. Two new building were created; one later named the National Museum of American History, and another that became the National Air and Space Museum. The NMAH opened in 1964 with ambitious plans for meaningful exhibits, often related to technology or the relationship of technology and culture. Its ties with academic historians strengthened. The museum featured a “consensus” version of history which claimed that all Americans lived happily together without conflict or pain. Exhibits explicitly excluded African Americans and other non-whites. At times they clearly advocated private interests or boldly partisan political aims. For example, when Nixon was determined to raise US productivity, he asked the NMAH to create an exhibit to help. It featured “Mom” making an apple pie and asked questions about what items she needed and who deserved the biggest piece. Critics responded that productivity was not the universal good that the exhibit claimed. Another questionable exhibit featured one brand of safety razor and was changed at the last moment to include others. The result was an exhibit resembling a trade show—hardly appropriate for our national history museum. When the National Air and Space Museum opened in 1976, it had been created with the assistance of the Air Force and its veterans and was even more clearly intended to celebrate the greatness of America and its Air Force.

By the 1970s, academic historians and some NMAH curators were moving away from such a glib patriotic version of our history. They wanted to show “the dark side of progress” and to include the experiences of various ethnic groups. “From Field to Factory” broke new ground with its depiction of the African American migration to the northern cities and with design features that led visitors to experience what they saw. An exhibit about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was sharply criticized because it did not display a positive enough view of the United States, but it was allowed to continue.

Against this background, a major dispute arose around a proposed exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, as part of a celebration of the end of World War II. Retired Air Force generals were given unusual access to preliminary ideas, not yet internally approved, and they involved Congress and the press in a major attack on the Smithsonian. People were fired and the museum disgraced. Even more disturbing to me was the account of the appointment to head the institution of a man who enriched himself and private individuals at the expense of the Smithsonian. He was an example of what can happen when governmental institutions are turned over to individuals who put their own private profit first rather than prioritizing public service.

In describing the Smithsonian and its history museums, Post raises important questions that perennially arise for those who lead museums. Were collection and research the chief goal or were public exhibits? What was the museum’s relationship with the professional historians of academia? Should curators be historians? Should donors who wanted their own stories highlighted be allowed to restrict what was displayed and how? Should exhibits be planned around valuable historical objects or about historical stories? Should “stakeholders” be allowed to control what is told in the exhibits?

At times I wish that Post had stated the broader issues and questions more clearly and forcefully. Instead, he usually focuses on the personalities of the museum’s leaders and on the daily process of decision-making. He has his own version to tell of the Enola Gray controversy and how it brought to a head long-standing tension about museum practices and goals. His account of this dispute and others involving the museum are strenuously fair to all sides. His description of how exhibits were debated and created was insightful. At times, however, I think his attention to “office politics” limited the book’s appeal to general readers. The fact that the book is not strictly chronological makes the vast cast of characters confusing. A chart of the development of the different museums which he describes and of their name changes would have been helpful to an outsider like myself. So would a list of the names and dates of the directors and major curators, the dates, and what responsibilities each held.

Who Owns History is a well-researched book about an important and little understood issue of what goes into the making of historical understanding. Those in the field of museumology will find much to interest them, but for general readers the details get overwhelming. I recommend this book to museum professionals.

Thanks Edelweiss and Johns Hopkins University Press for sending me an ebook version of this book to review.

 

Modern Motherhood: An American History, by Jodi Vandenberg-Daves.

April 15, 2014

Modern Motherhood: An American History, by Jodi Vandenberg-Daves. Rutgers University Press, May 2014.

An impressive and strongly recommended history of how motherhood has changed in America, delving into shifting cultural ideals and expert opinions, into the economic factors and government policies that shaped the institution, and into the actual experiences of mothers from a variety of classes and races.

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves has given us a much-needed overview of how women have been defined by and have experienced motherhood—and how historically all women have been thought of as mothers. Drawing from Adrienne Rich’s influential book Of Mother Born, she narrates how motherhood has changed both as an institution and as an experience. For her, motherhood includes, but has never been limited to, the private interaction of a mother and her child.  That relationship is imbedded within ideological and economic factors that decisively affect it. Her book interweaves private and public factors making it a wide-spreading and complex narrative, yet one easily read by the general public.

Vandenberg-Daves begins her account by describing how moral authority in the home shifted from fathers to mothers in the early nineteenth century.  Women gained power within the family, at the cost of an increased financial dependency on men.  After discussing the contradictions of this idealized motherhood, she explains that it never fit the lives of women who were slaves or in poverty.  Even for financially secure white women it broke down as women sought to limit how often they gave birth and as they became employed outside their homes after the Civil War.

In the twentieth century, motherhood is part of a larger public story of industrialization, urbanization, and the rising prosperity of many, but not all, American families after World War II.  Such economic factors helped define the realities that mothers were forced to address. Increased involvement of doctors, government policies, and TV shows had their impacts on reproduction and child-rearing. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminism lead to an explosion of changes that affected the options for mothering. A few feminists put motherhood at the center of their thought, as Vadenberg-Daves shows, but sadly many of us were focused on fighting ourselves free of the restricted lives we had seen our mothers live. We were into mother-blaming and “giving birth to ourselves.” It was a confusing time, and this is the weakest of the book’s chapters.  None the less, major changes occurred.   Motherhood became less tied to marriage.  With the ability to control reproduction and earn a living, singleness and childlessness became accepted options. While controversial, single and lesbian motherhood became realities. For a time government assistance eased the strains of mothers in poverty.  And then opposition to the empowerment of women became strident and governmental assistance dried up.

Vandenberg-Daves does not limit herself to this somewhat familiar white middle-class story.  She devotes large portions to her book to the ways in which African American women developed styles of motherhood that were opposite the white ideal. African American slave mothers had virtually no control over their children who could always be sold away from them. Later, as sharecroppers and domestic servants, they developed ways of caring for their own children while working for the families of others. Often this involved sharing mothering tasks with “othermothers.” Immigrant mothers and all who were poor adapted in similar patterns. As more and more white middle-class women enter the workforce, our lives have come to resemble this combination of employment and motherhood.

When I wrote my dissertation in the 1980s on the history of motherhood, there were only a handful of scholars who had researched the topic. In the past thirty years, such research has mushroomed. Vandenberg-Davis has done a masterful job of weaving that research into a clear and assessable narrative for both academic and general readers.  She clearly follows the traditional scholarly requirements for accuracy and documentation.  She is at her best presenting opposing arguments fairly. Although her sympathy is obviously with the mothers whom she describes, she refuses to demonize those whose ideas and policies harmed them. Her book aims at providing a summary and structure for other people’s research rather introducing new data.  Its comparison of how motherhood varied by class and race, as well as over time, it is a major contribution to scholarship and public understanding.

One of the merits of this book is that it tells history from a perspective different than the traditional focus of nation states engaged in politics and war. While Vandenberg-Daves doesn’t ignore such topics, they are not front and center in this book. She proves that historical narratives need not be organized along traditional political patterns. Although she focuses on the particulars of American history, much she relates is relevant for readers in other nations where similar stories have evolved and in those regions where Americans and Europeans have sought to enforce their family ideals.

As I read, I envisioned using this book in a Women’s History class. While it would need to be supplemented with other materials, I would love to use it as a basic text. I could see students taking different sides on the debates among those who have advocated for mothers in the past.  I imagined how knowing the roots of some of decisions about motherhood and womanhood might help students negotiate the choices facing them personally and as a society.  They could see that they have options earlier women did not have around reproduction and motherhood. Yet some issues keep reappearing.  What has been gained with the increased availability of birth control, and more involvement outside the home, could be taken away.  As I read this book, ironically the US Supreme Court was debating birth control, something that changed women’s options dramatically 50 years ago which the radical right is trying to take away.

I consider this a “must read” book for everyone, female and male, everywhere. It provides a structure with which we can understand how we got to our current institutions and experiences around motherhood and thus the tools to work toward a world where mothers have a say in the forces which shape their options.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Rutgers University Press for sending me this book to review.

The Pink Sari Revolution, by Amana Fontanella-Khan.

April 13, 2014

The Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India, by Amana Fontanella-Khan.   W. W. Norton & Company (2013),  Hardcover, 304 pages.

SOUTH ASIA WOMEN WRITERS

A lively journalistic account of Sampat Pal, a rural woman in north central India, and the women she organized to fight against injustice.

Sampat Pal is a woman living in southern Uttar Pradesh. She lives in the geographical region known as Bundelkhand, a region rife with extreme poverty and lawlessness. Although uneducated, she has proven herself to be an outstanding speaker and organizer. Starting with a small self-help group, she has drawn hundreds of women into a formal organization. Many are widows, left behind with no resources when their families moved away. Known as the “Pink Sari Gang,” they wear bright pink saris as badges of identification and carry sticks to use as aids in walking and as weapons to attack the police and other advisories. Sampat and the Pink Sari Gang have been surprisingly successful, freeing women and their family members from arrest and pursuing other actions to improve their lives. Central to the book is the story of their involvement in a recent struggle about a young woman raped by a corrupt local politician.

Amana Fontanella-Khan is a journalist who lived in India and conducted extensive research of Sampat Pal and the Pink Sari Gang. She has lived among the women and obviously admires them. She remains, however, aware that the account she gives of them is not the only story to be told. She does not claim to have the final word about the women and their actions and is careful to note when facts are “alleged”, not proven, or when an incident is told from the viewpoint of a particular individual. Rumors and claims about the politician and his accuser were particularly hard to authenticate. As she points out, dialogue in the text is simply how her informants remembered what was said. Her book includes notes documenting her sources of information, although there are no footnotes in the text. Having spent extensive time in the region, she is also able to give visual details that help readers from outside image what is happening.

Sampat is the main character in this book. In telling her story, Fontanella-Khan reveals the depth of poverty, lack of education and the isolation of her rural region. Although Sampat was desperately poor and married off as a child, she was able to browbeat her husband into allowing her to have a role in helping others with their problems. Eventually she left him to be cared for by their adult children and made her “office” the center of her life. She lived with a male friend who assisted her in her work in what seems to have been an asexual relationship. Sampat is clearly an unusual person, uniquely qualified, but not separated from others around her.

Although the members of the Pink Sari Gang are all women and chiefly concerned about the problems women face, I would not call them feminist, and neither does Fontanella-Khan. They are a practical group responding to spefic problems, with no theoretical claims of gender oppression. In addition to women-centered protests, they demonstrated and forced officials to build a much needed road and fought for the release of women’s male relatives. Men are supportive of the group, but remain in the background. With their sticks and willingness to attack authorities physically, the women are certain not practitioners of non-violence. Interestingly, Fontanella-Khan notes that India has a tradition of villagers protesting what they view as unfair treatment. Although most of these protests have been led by men in the past, some have been led by women.

I read this book because I knew almost nothing beyond generalities about rural India. I was curious, especially last year as protests against rape exploded. I know too little to critique The Pink Sari Revolution, but I learned much that seemed accurate about rural women and the circumstances of their lives. As well as bringing to life the women in her story, Fontanella-Kahn presents their region as among the poorest and most lawless in India. The corruption of political leaders was almost unimaginable. For me, it was a depressing place, but the story of Sampat and the other women was hopeful and inspiring.

This is a book that I gladly recommend to readers, especially those interested in India, in rural unrest, and in women organizing to improve their own lives.

Related books:

Beyond the Beautiful Forever, by Katherine Boo.  A particularly impressive book about urban poverty in India.

 

Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna.

April 11, 2014

Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna.  New York:  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.

FAVORITE

AFRICA READING

GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR

A gifted writer recreates the stories of four West African sisters whose lives span the twentieth century.

As the twentieth century begins, a West African man clears land and starts the coffee plantation that will make him wealthy. Four of his daughters, by four of his eleven wives, tell their own stories about their lives as children, coming of age, in maturity, and in old age. The stories are told to a niece who grew up among them and now lives aboard, a woman who could be Forna herself. When the niece returns to the plantation, the aunts are waiting to tell her their stories.

In one of the stories, a young girl watches her mother take up a cluster of stones that she obviously cherishes, and shake them out on the floor.

A dark rock the shape of a man’s cigar. A broken pebble, open like a split plum. A stone with a dimple that fitted my thumb. A pale three-cornered stone…. The Ancestors, she called them…. The names of my mother’s mother. Of my grandmother. Of my great-grandmother and her mother. The women who went before. The women who made me. Each stone chosen and given in memory of a woman to her daughter. So that their spirits would be recalled each time the stone was held, warmed by a human hand, and cast on the ground for help.

In Forna’s hands, stories are “ancestor stones,” each a jewel in its own right, but even more meaningful in the context of the others. They recount how lives were lived in the past, but not with the intention of preserving particular traditions.  Instead they are meant to deepen our understanding of the choices we all face as humans.  All of them affirm life in face of pain.

The first set of stories in Ancestor Stones tells of life in a large polygamous family. We see how it works and how it breaks down. Rivalry and support among the wives co-exist. Children find nurturing from various “mothers,” and wives are driven away. Traditional religions are being replaced by aggressive Islam. The man at the head of the family is a Muslim, and he expects all of his wives to share his faith, but they continue to worship in their own ways.

The second set of stories is about the women’s experience as they leave the compound to marry, to attend school or to work for the white men who are arriving. Seeking to live differently than their mothers, they find themselves unable to do so. They relate the pain of traditions, like female circumcision, but accept it as “the way things were.” Yet their worlds are changing. Europeans, who are appearing, seem to make tasks harder for themselves. For example they carry books in their hands instead on their heads. New houses are square, not round, and harder to keep clean and free of spirits.

Next are stories in which the women have matured and face new problems. One marries a man who becomes a leader in their newly independent country and becomes part of glittery society in the capital. She recognizes that something is wrong that no one wants to admit. Another goes to England to study where isolation almost destroys her.

Once I went to live among strangers and I learned what it was like to lose yourself. To feel fragments flying off of you. As if your soul had become unhitched from your body and is flying away on a piece of string like a balloon. Lost in the clouds. You think, I only have to catch the end of the string. But though it hovers within sight, you cannot grasp it. You try and try. And then comes a time when you are too tired. You no longer care. “Let me just fall down on the soft grass and go to sleep.”

In the concluding section, the women tell of their experiences in the terrible civil war that wrecked their unnamed country. One of the women hid within a wooden chest while rebels ransacked her home. She asks “What in the world have we done to deserve such a fate?”

Aminatta Forna is an exquisite writer; one of those whose words delight me. Her prose is full and rich, often sensual. Her descriptions sharp and sure. At times she leaves readers to figure out parts of the story, like the rebellion that destroys the plantation. Often she imparts an insight in a few words. I agree with the reviewer who says that her prose is like “bolts of brightly colored cloth.”

The daughter of a man from Sierra Leon and a Scottish woman, Forna lived in Sierra Leone as a child and left after her father’s death. Today she moves between there and London. For this book, she learned her people’s native language in order to collect family stories.
Her novel, Memory of Love, is explicitly about Sierra Leon and its attempts to recover after from civil war. The setting for Ancestor Stones is not explicitly stated.

I strongly recommend this book to all who are interested in women’s lives in West Africa throughout the twentieth century and all who find joy in well-crafted prose.

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