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Thirty Girls (Vintage Contemporaries)
Thirty Girls (Vintage Contemporaries)
Susan Minot
Vintage, 2015
384 pp., 16.95

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David A. Hoekema


Captives of the Prophet

The 1996 Uganda kidnappings.

In northern Uganda, 18 years before Boko Haram's mass kidnapping from a girls' school in Nigeria, 200 pupils were taken by force from their school dormitory. Their captors too were adherents of an armed rebellion that claimed to be restoring true religion to people who had wandered from the path. The kidnapped girls of St. Mary's School in Aboke, near Lira, were taught to obey the Ten Commandments, do no farming on Friday, and keep house and bear children for rebel commanders to whom God had assigned them. The prophet who received these instructions and relayed them to his soldiers and captives was a shadowy former soldier named Joseph Kony. Like most of his soldiers, and most of the 30,000 boys and girls they kidnapped, Kony identified himself as Christian. But the wisdom he drew from Christian Scripture was filtered through the revelations of 13 different spirits who, he claimed, visited him in visions.

The Aboke kidnapping in 1996 riveted the world's attention for a time. Pursuing the soldiers the morning after the kidnapping, Sister Rachelle Fassera obtained the release of all but 30 of the girls. Most of those 30 remained captive for as long as ten years before they escaped or were finally released; four died in lra hands. The rebellion dragged on, descending into a nightmare of kidnapping, rape, and murder. Kony left Uganda in 2006, releasing most of the abducted, but remains in hiding nearby with a small group of loyalists.

Now, after all these years, the Aboke kidnapping is made real again in a work of fiction. Susan Minot's Thirty Girls tells the truth but tells it slant. Minot conveys the horrors of civil war and delusional religion without sensationalism or sentimentalism. Inventing all of her characters but placing their experiences in the history of the conflict, she has written a remarkable book.

Actually, two remarkable books: there are two intertwined narratives here. One of them is the story of the kidnapped girls, from the night of their abduction through the years until several escaped and were reunited with—or rejected by—their parents and siblings. The voice is that of Esther, a fictional character whose reports closely mirror the accounts of the real Aboke girls and of other lra captives.

The other narrative is a travel memoir. Its narrator is Jane, an American journalist whose conscience is awakened when she meets one of the Aboke mothers and decides to go to Africa, visit some of the girls who have escaped, and tell their story to the world.

Esther's story is told with extraordinary vividness and power. Minot accomplishes a seemingly impossible task: to tell of unspeakable acts in ways that evoke but do not paralyze our emotions. Esther is a character of depth and complexity, and in her portions of the narrative—a monologue whose implied audience may be the author of the memoir, or perhaps the reader of the book—she recounts not only the suffering she has endured, and sometimes caused, but also the ways in which it changed her. After she and several other girls are forced to beat another girl for trying to escape, Esther reflects:

My gaze looks at what is happening but a small gate in my brain makes a space and I leave through it. What I am watching continues on, in a separate place glassed off, in a universe of its own. The hands holding my stick are no longer mine.

There is a sort of ventriloquism at work here, and it is a risky venture. How dare a mere visitor and observer presume to relate an African's experience of unimaginable suffering and cruelty? Dave Eggers attempted something similar in his 2006 account of the experiences of a Sudanese refugee, What Is the What? But Eggers employed his literary gifts to retell the story of one individual, Valentino Achak Deng. Minot's undertaking is more difficult: recounting one of the ugliest chapters in East African history through the voices of invented characters.

And she pulls it off: a high-wire act of storytelling that rings true. In my own recent research into the role of the churches in resisting and eventually expelling the lra from northern Uganda, assisted by a fellowship from the Nagel Institute for Global Christianity, I heard firsthand reports very similar to Esther's. Arbitrary rules, summary and severe punishments, whimsical appropriation of whatever women or goods the commanders fancied—all these were described by lra survivors and their parents whom I interviewed in Gulu in January 2014. Minot's retelling of the experience of captivity is compelling, emotionally potent, and accurate.

The effects are enhanced in an audio book performance in which reader Robin Miles quickly identifies each character by tone of voice and accent. Esther's crisp diction, distinctive East African rhythms, and emotional restraint are even more arresting in Miles' reading than on the printed page.

But what about the other narrative? It too is told with precision and poetry. Jane's travel journal is emotionally rich without becoming maudlin. But its outlines are too familiar, too predictable. A middle-aged professional American is dissatisfied with herself and her life, divorced and then widowed, and desperate to do something good for the world. She ventures to Africa, meets a young adventurer, falls in something distantly resembling love in a matter of hours, and recruits a few other visitors and East African settlers for a road trip to the north to conduct interviews. Roads are terrible; booze flows freely; hills and sunsets are beautiful. Most of the Africans in this narrative are servants in households reminiscent of Karen Blixen's, but eventually we meet some dedicated and effective Ugandan ngo staff members and lra parents. And all along this journey, the fictional character Jane tells us repeatedly, sex with the dashing young man is stupendous.

This narrative unfolds in a world rather like that of Minot's earlier novels (all bearing single-word titles: Evening, Lust, Monkeys, Rapture), and it could stand alone as an engaging and effective work of contemporary fiction. Minot offers vivid descriptions of her odd band of characters, their surroundings, and their inner lives. Some of her characters remain little more than role-players—the wealthy financier lavish with donations but flummoxed by life in Africa; the lonely wife running the household while her philandering husband travels; the European photographer who hurries from crisis to crisis, continent to continent—but others have greater depth. Narrator Jane is more reflective and more focused than any of her companions, and her dedication to tell the story of the Aboke girls to the world seems heartfelt. By the end of the story she too has suffered a grave loss, and we are invited to consider how it compares to the suffering of the Aboke girls.

But why are these two disparate narratives sandwiched between the covers of one book? The story of Esther alone might be too difficult for readers to bear, and perhaps seeing it through an observer's eyes makes it more approachable. Minot may have felt she could not speak for the abducted girls without acknowledging her status as an out-sider through Jane's experiences.

Perhaps the key lies in a few short chapters, each bearing the enigmatic title "The You File." These are brief soliloquies, introspective reflections on what it means to be oneself. It is never entirely clear whose internal voice we are hearing. In the first it seems to be Esther's:

Someone hurt because of you may be the hardest thing to bear.
You think your life is your own, but we all belong to others.
Life is the same everywhere.
There is nowhere like this.

A later reflection could be heard in the voice of either narrator, or both:

Who said you choose your life?
You have gone away and new things steer you. Wind, hands. Some cruel, some kind … .
You are a child again and the powerless world expands around you. Some days you say, It will be all right. Other days, It is too much to bear. Then people do, they bear it.

And again, not much farther on:

You hear someone's voice then see her face turning, saying your name. She is wondering where you are and where you have been. You do not know what to tell her. You are not sure. You are less and less sure. All you can say which is honest and true is, I am here.

These observations—at once poetic and philosophical—suggest that Minot intends her double narrative to highlight common threads among utterly disparate lives. Does the book succeed in establishing this commonality? I am not sure. The Janes of the developed world, after all, have the resources, the leisure, and the reserves of curiosity to travel across continents and experience vicariously the lives of the Esthers of the developing world. But the latter cannot make a return journey, and they live in a far more constrained world. To suggest that at bottom both face the same issues of identity and meaning seems somehow either paternalistic or presumptuous.

Yet even if the two narratives never really come together into one book, Thirty Girls is an extraordinary achievement in at least one of its parts. By drawing us into the deeply disordered world of those held captive by others' delusions, it enriches our understanding of the human experience.

David A. Hoekema is professor of philosophy at Calvin College and has directed student study programs in Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. His recent publications include essays on moral dimensions of African politics and on spirituality in the music of Benjamin Britten.

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