South Sudan. A nation torn by civil war as well as religious and ethnic conflict. The country from which Viola and her mother escape to the United States. The story told poignantly in free verse, is captured in this trailer:
Viola's father is a rebel soldier who has been gone for five years and she lives with her beloved grandmother, mother, and younger brother, Francis, in Juba. Their lives are full of two enemies: the Sudanese soldiers who rape women and kill young boys or conscript them for the army, and poverty. Yet the family are embraced and loved in their community.
Viola yearns for freedom, and to escape to America where her uncle lives. When she is raped by a Sudanese soldier, she is full of shame knowing that she will no longer be valuable as a bride:
At home I rub palm oil into my mother's hair.
She is silent.
She knows. Everybody knows.
The story rolls along like drumbeats from house to house.
Viola has lost her bride wealth.
Her daughter's devastation and pain precipitates her mother's push to escape. But the family must leave her grandmother and beloved village behind. Although they journeys thousands of miles, Viola can't leave behind her feeling of being ruined as a woman. While waiting to be approved to immigrate to America she thinks:
I cannot imagine my future and my past is a snake, ready to strike.
Francis sickens and dies while they are waiting to leave Africa. His loss is huge to both Viola and her mother. She wakens from a nightmare about the rape and clutches one of her few possessions, a book her grandmother gave her:
I hold it to me and breathe
as if I could breathe life back into us all.
The metaphor of braided hair weaves throughout the book. It was an important way in which the women connected with one another. Viola learned how to make tiny rows of braids from her mother:
When I was young, my little fingers rode on her long narrow ones
Explaining the death of her brother to her friend Lokolumbe, Viola says:
I am not who I used to be.
We were three, like three strands.
We lay, three of us, on the steamer warming each other.
Without the third, I don't know what to do.
She asks him:
What does it matter about a refugee’s hair?
Why not have knots like a child? What does it matter?”
He looks ahead into the sand.
As tall as I am,
I come only to Lokolumbe’s shoulder.
He does not answer at first.
We both keep walking in the desert,
following a fragile dream of America.
“Braids are from our culture,” he says, this boy who read and knows all the American capital cities.
“They are the African designs we give to the world. When you are ready, you will braid.”
After almost two years of living among other refugees in a church courtyard in Cairo, Viola and her mother receive the blue card needed to go to America. But life in an apartment in Kennedy Park in Portland, Maine has its own set of challenges. The language, culture, the color of the people--even the weather--are all foreign. Eventually, Viola gets used to her new school, the new technology, and different foods, but she feels caught between two cultures:
I wish I could see my grandmother’s bright eyes.
I have been here less than a year,
yet I do not think I can be all Sudanese, all the time.
Already, am I part American?
I don’t feel like any one thing.
Her friend Jackie, explains the gap between Sudan and America:
“If you live in Kennedy Park, you remember.
The elders make sure you remember.
Your mother makes sure you remember.
If you go to McDonald’s, your mother makes you remember,
‘You need African food,’ she says.
‘You cannot eat this food. You will die!
That’s what they say if you forget to remember.”
Viola's confusion is reflected in her feelings about her hair:
That night I stand at the mirror
and see my ragged, broken hair.
With scissors I cut, cut,
cut, until my hair all around
is cut as close to my head as I can make it.
When I am done,
I gaze at my unflinching eyes.
Hey ! I tell Lokolumbe,
this is the way I look in America
Viola and her mother survive the turbulence of Viola's friendship with Andrew:
A girl as skinny as the Nile on a map of Africa and a boy with red hair who smells like fish.
but it is not without a run-in with government agencies and agony for both mother and daughter. Viola confides her despair to her guidance counselor:
“I am not doing well. I am not American.
I’m not in Sudan and not really in Maine.
Or maybe I’m in both of them
at the same time.
I’m in someplace I’m making up.
Even talking to you.
This story about the soldier . . .
would never talk about it.”
Still I go on, leaning into her.
“I don’t do the Sudanese braids
in my hair we all do in my culture.
Why don’t I? I don’t know.”
I rub my hair again. I laugh
and hold my hands out, palms open,
my body is all question.
Farish's simple, yet eloquent free verse ends Viola's story with hope. She misses the feeling of braiding other people's hair and in the end she braids a white girl's hair and is wearing braided extensions in her own hair.
In the final scene, the reader sees Viola playing with a young child:
The nights have gotten longer.
I sit on the couch beside my mother with Jamal,
a solid, warm weight plopped
in my lap. He is singing the names of
animals he looks at in a picture book.
Out the window the moon is shining.
My mother tells me to sit on the floor.
I do with Jamal still in my lap,
and her strong fingers
begin to massage jojoba oil into my hair.
Jamal holds the book high in the air,
then drops his head back against my belly,
grinning upside down at me.
“Who is this boy,” I tease,
“this one who eats Cocoa Puffs for breakfast?”
I scoop him up the way Habuba would have.
I play the traditional game. “Who wants this child?
Anybody want this child?” and pretend to pass him
around to Frieda or my mother while he squeals.
My mother describes for him
the feel of the earth when the elephants walk,
and Jamal’s eyes grow wide.
I shut my eyes and can feel the heat
of the cook fire in our courtyard.
Then comes a hint of the smell
of the earth by the Nile.
I’m an American girl in Portland, Maine.
But I am also
a girl from Juba.