I reviewed “Thirty Girls,” by Susan Minot for the Dallas Morning News:
Some cruelties are so incomprehensible that our instinct for self-preservation often makes us want to shut knowledge of them out. “I hear their stories and feel bad,” a character says in Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls. “How does it help them if my head is filled with horrible images?” Another character counters, “It helps them if you listen.”
Such is the case for the story of tens of thousands of Ugandan children kidnapped and forced to become soldiers and sex slaves for the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group of rebels led by Joseph Kony that has waged a guerrilla war for two decades. In her skillful and moving sixth book, Minot focuses on a group of girls the LRA kidnapped from St. Mary’s College of Aboke in 1996, a true story that she’s fictionalized and personified in the voice of one remarkable survivor, Esther Akello.
Thirty Girls opens on the terrible night the rebels came and took the girls from dormitories at their Catholic school. When Sister Giulia, the headmistress, wakes to the news that the rebels have forced their way onto campus, she wants to run to the girls, but other nuns persuade her to hide with them in the garden, hoping the “giant plank” barring the girls’ door will keep them safe. It does not. Sister Giulia immediately sets out on foot to confront the rebels and demand her girls be returned.
Minot conveys the particular psychological cruelty the rebels inflict through their skill at making the victims feel at fault. A rebel leader teases Sister Giulia, “So, next time I come to the school, do not run away.” He says he has taken 139 girls, and he will give her 109, but she must list the names of the 30 who will stay.
She offers herself instead, is refused, and is unable to make a Sophie’s choice. Strong Louise, the captain of the soccerteam, lists 30 girls, including herself and her friend Esther Akello, who will narrate the sad and bewildering turns her life takes in clear, understated and unflinching prose. In Esther’s graceful cadences, Minot has captured what she describes as the “sweet softness” of the northern Ugandans’ voices.
Thirty Girls next introduces Jane Wood, an American writer who is unhappily unsettled at age 40 — her ex-husband died of a drug overdose. Jane arrives at her glamorous friend Lana’s house in Nairobi with an assignment to cover the story for a magazine and a vague plan to find someone to drive her to northern Uganda to interview the victims. A Graham Greene-like atmosphere reigns at Lana’s, where several international travelers pursuing love, freedom and the good life are tossed together. It’s a “place where everyone seemed matter-of-factly to lead a life of extremity and daring.”
These characters fall into bed with each other in various combinations, and as much as Jane warns herself not to, she falls hard for young Harry, who is 17 years her junior. Jane came to Africa “wanting to disappear, but now felt more vivid than ever.” Watching these people swirl about leading untethered lives is entertaining, but the counterpoint of Esther’s story gives Thirty Girls moral weight, like that offered in Greene’s best novels.
As the eclectic group ventures to Uganda with Harry at the wheel, Thirty Girls follows their eventful road trip, interspersed with chapters in which Esther, who now lives in a rehabilitation camp for escapees from the LRA, tells the story of her life with the rebels. “I remember in a soft way, as in the distance, how it was to be whole,” Esther says. “Nothing. It was like nothing. You just had wholeness, you did not feel it.”
Esther has endured being forced, on pain of death, to beat another girl; countless rapes; watching her best friend die of AIDS; and bearing a rebel’s baby and losing it.
Jane’s problems aren’t nearly as grave as Esther’s, but the reader still feels sympathy for her, especially as she comes to care increasingly for the Aboke girls throughout her journey, and that’s what Thirty Girls might be about: We’re all suffering humans, but our capacity for empathy offers a chance of reducing that suffering. Thirty Girls brings faraway calamity home in the form of Esther, a character so endearing that, shutting out her story is not an option.
Jenny Shank’s first novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award.