Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Good Braider: A Review and a Giveaway

When Tracey Adams of Adams Literary recommends a book, I listen.  As a result, when I was given the opportunity by Recorded Books to listen and review the book Tracey recommended,  the good braider (Skyscape, 2012) I jumped at the chance. For one fortunate blog reader, you'll be glad that I did. Following this review you'll find directions on how to win this beautifully produced audio CD, narrated by Cherise Boothe. Written by Terry Farish, the good braider was selected in 2013 as the Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year and a book of Outstanding Merit. You can find the study guide here; Farish has donated this book to the Worldreader program.

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.
    Or Sudanese.
    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 . . .
    my people
    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.
*******************
To win this audio CD please follow these directions:

1. Leave me a comment with your email address (if I don't have it.)
2. Become a new follower of this blog and I'll add your name twice.
3. For each time you post the link on social media I'll enter your name again.
4. Drawing to be held before noon on Saturday, May 31. 

18 comments:

Leah Henderson said...

This is a stunningly beautiful story. Thank you for sharing this review.

Carol Baldwin said...

Leah, it really is. I just entered your name for the giveaway.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Carol, this is a terrific intro. Thank you! And please do enter me. I would love to listen to this.

Carol Baldwin said...

You will love this book, JOyce. So if you don't win it on my blog, you have to get it from the library!

Rosi said...

This sounds like an amazing story. Please let someone else win, though. I am way, way behind on my reading.

Linda Vigen Phillips said...

Thanks for this great review. I loved this book and found parallels between it and Thanhha Lai's book Inside Out and Back Again, where she describes her escape from Saigon and adjustment to living in America. Both books make me mindful of how much we take for granted as Americans.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Linda, for the reminder about "Inside OUt and Back Again." I need to read that too!

vezenimost said...

Carol, Thank you for this exceptional review. I LOVE the parts you picked to illustrate your words. Especially this:
"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."
Powerful words!
Even after 18 years in this country, I often feel stuck between the two worlds, two cultures, feeling deeply that I truly don't belong fully to either one anymore.
I would LOVE to be the lucky winner. Thanks.

Carol Baldwin said...

Vida- thank you for your kind comment. You would love and appreciate this book on many levels-- as a poet and as someone who has survived a war torn country. I'll add your name to the list!

Ann Eisenstein said...

" I hold it to me and breathe
as if I could breathe life back into us all. "
How lovely a metaphor for all who have lost pieces of their lives in so many different ways... This story will both enlighten and enrich each of us. Thank you, Carol, for following Tracey's advice, and for reading and sharing this story with us.

sheri levy said...

Thanks Carol, for sharing this emotional, and loving story. Great job sharing the plot. I've had many children in my classes that couldn't speak our language and our culture was so new and frightening. It sounds like a story I'd like to read!!

Carol Baldwin said...

thanks Sheri and Ann, for commenting on this post. I had a hard time selecting the passages- there were many to choose from. Your names are in the hat!

Linda A. said...

Carol,
This was a great review of "The Good Braider." Loved it! I definitely want to read it. I always enjoy your posts very much!

I look forward to the day yours is being reviewed!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Linda, you are kind. I added your name to the list!

Joy said...

Carol,
This is a great episode on your blog. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. It definitely will be put on my reading list.
I've met several Sudanese young men in my travels, so this will provide an opportunity to hear the women's voices. Such brave people.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Joy. With your love for poetry, you would love this book. I will add your name to the list!

Kim Van Sickler said...

Looks like a fascinating book. I read Sold, a book written in free verse by Patricia McCormick about a Nepalese girl given away by a despicable lazy stepfather in order to pay his gambling debts. The stepdaughter ends up working in a brothel, another casualty in the human trafficking network. Despite the horror of her story, the book is awash in colorful descriptions and hope. I loved it.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Kim. It is tricky business to write about horrific issues and still give hope.