Ancient Rites and Sexy Flowers: Discussing the Research Behind Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston

 

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Book cover: Priestess of Ishana
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Author Judith Starkston. Image retrieved from author website

 

A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview – and feeding me in her own home, no less! – I want to talk a little bit about the awesome lady and the research behind a truly unique new series of books.

The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.

One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queen Puduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women – they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses in particular had a key business and financial role as well as religious. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.

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The Great Temple in Hattusa

 

The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.

She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual and other similar ones showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.

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Cuneiform tablet

Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese, and so on.

Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favorite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy?

The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favorites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.

Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.”

Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.

Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction – indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should ‘historical’ be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as ‘historical’? What actually constitutes history or fantasy, anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of ‘believability’ is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three – and there would be no Outlander!

When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them, and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic.

And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?

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Find out more about Judith Starkston

Website: https://www.judithstarkston.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/judy.starkston

Twitter: @JudithStarkston

Read What You Don’t Like

I used to write for a couple different places and one of them put out a call for suggestions for some new reading challenges. “Cool,” I thought. I sent in a couple suggestions via their team meeting site and, my job done, thought nothing more of it. Imagine my surprise when I got roasted in said team meeting site for one of the suggestions I had submitted. What was this horrible recommendation I made, you might ask? I said to read a book written by a person not of your political affiliation.

Now, this place where I used to write is generally pretty open and inclusive and tolerant, so it really was a genuine surprise to me that the consensus reaction to my earnest recommendation was “Fuck you. Hard pass.” Particularly considering that they are very politically oriented and want to effect change, bring social awareness and equality, and basically make things better for everyone, not just rich white dudes. It seems logical to me that, in order to change something, you first have to understand what it is that you want to change. How else can you understand the way people think but to read about the other side, the side you disagree with?

Learning what the other side of any argument, position, religion, political party, what have you, thinks in order to bolster one’s own defenses  is certainly not a new strategy. For example, the ancient Stoic Seneca learned a great deal about the Epicureans; when asked about why he knew so much about a rival school of thought, he said, in his Moral Letters, “I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, not as a deserter, but as a scout.” He knew the value of learning what others thought, whether he agreed with them or not. Seneca was a man who valued wisdom, regardless of its source, and was not ashamed to quote from an author or source he generally disagreed with if he felt the bit of wisdom itself was valuable. That is something people today tend to forget all too frequently. I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still bits of wisdom in the Bible or Quran that I can find meaningful or valuable; I’m straight but that doesn’t mean a lesbian can’t write something meaningful to me. Dismissing something out of hand seems not only narrow-minded, but dangerous as well. To paraphrase Captain Picard, when people learn to devalue one group, they can devalue anyone. See? Just because that came from a sci-fi TV show doesn’t make it any less true or valuable. We have to be careful not to fall victim to a myopic view of the world where we only see things from one point of view – our own – and forget that there are many well reasoned and cogent arguments from the other side. When you get stuck in this kind of feedback loop, it is easy to fall victim, too, to confirmation bias in our thinking and not remain open minded or willing to learn new things.

So, because I am a liberal Democrat, I should make an effort to read books by a not!Democrat on occasion. I have a couple books below that were recommended to me by a Republican I know and trust, and who isn’t rabid like Ann Coulter. He recommended them as a good starting point for a variety of reasons and I will give them an honest read in the spirit of open debate and exchange of ideas. The notes after the titles are from my friend’s email:

  • The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America by Arthur Brooks. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. It is a fun read, and doesn’t get into name calling or demonizing. It is a thoughtful and optimistic look at what true conservatives believe. This is about as far away from Ann Coulter as you can get, both in terms of its tone and its intellectual rigor.  
  • Economic Facts and Fallacies, 2nd edition by Thomas Sowell. Don’t be scared by the title [he knows me well], there aren’t any formulas and graphs. Sowell is a brilliant thinker and takes complex issues regarding gender, race, and education explains them in a narrative style using research. He basically uses available economic data to look at some of the biggest social issues of our time, often calling out the big discrepancy between good intentions and actual results.

Since I am also an atheist, there are plenty of religious books I could read as well, but I’ve read a ton of them already. I have read the Bible four times, cover to cover, using three different editions (King James x1, New International Version x1, and Douay Rheims x2), not counting the hundreds of times I have dipped into it to look up a specific verse for writing papers and whatnot. I also translated Genesis from the Latin Vulgate when I was taking Latin in one of my college classes. So I have read the Bible more times than a lot of religious folk probably have. I’ve read the Quran once, cover to cover. I’ve read the Book of Mormon in bits and pieces but never all the way through. Maybe I’ll do that one of these days. I teach college level World Mythology, so I have read all the Greco-Roman myths, all the Norse myths, most of the Celtic myths, and various Native American, various African, various Asian, and various South American myths more times than I can count. So, since any religious text is, to me, from an opposite point of view from what I hold, I can recommend the below:

The Holy Bible: Douay-Rheims Version (I prefer this version as this is translated directly from the Latin Vulgate, translated from the Hebrew)

The Holy Qur’an

The Upanishads, 2nd Edition

Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin Classics)

World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics edited by Donna Rosenberg. This is the one I use in my World Myths class and it is a really good text, very diverse and it connects to modern life very nicely.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I picked politics and religion because those are two hot topics for a lot of people and I think it is easy to forget that both sides can have valuable points, regardless of whether you agree or not. So maybe try reading some books from a different point of view from your own and see what you can get out of it. What books would you recommend adding to the list?

*Post contains Amazon affiliate links

Fear: Trump in the White House

41012533A Review by Cathy Smith*

It was 1974, and we were all standing around a small television in the lobby of a hotel in Mexico City. President Richard Nixon was resigning from the office of President of the United States. My uncle turned to my mother and asked her thoughts about Watergate and President Nixon. Mom was not a big supporter of Nixon. For her, it was personal. During the 1950s, we lived in Bolivia. My father was one of the chief advisers to President Paz Estensoro and was involved in all the diplomatic meetings with any state officials from the United States. It was during one of Nixon’s visits to Bolivia as Vice President of the United States that things got very personal for my mom, and both my parents lost all respect and support for Nixon.

It is funny how the mind works, and how certain memories come back when watching current events in the news. In this case, all the memories of Watergate, Nixon, and my parents surfaced as I followed, and continue to follow, the drama of the Trump administration from the elections leading up to 2016, the midterms of 2018, the Mueller investigation, and Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear: Trump in the White House.

Bob Woodward is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose most notable work was with colleague Carl Bernstein when the two men blew the lid off the Watergate scandal with their investigative reporting. Their book, All the President’s Men, chronicles their work on Watergate. Woodward has worked for the Washington Post for over 45 years. Of his 19 authored or coauthored books, 13 have been number one national non-fiction bestsellers, and nine have been on recent U.S. Presidents (Woodward, n.d.). Fear: Trump in the White House was sold out before the book’s actual publication date. I initially bought the Audible version of the book, and later picked up a hard copy I found hiding in a stack of books at the local Costco. When going through checkout, the cashier told me I was lucky to have found the book because all the local bookstores sent representatives into Costco on the release date to purchase the Costco copies. He was surprised they had missed one. According to Woodward (n.d.) Fear: Trump in the White House has “sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week in the United States and broke the 94-year-first-week sales record of its publisher Simon & Schuster” (para. 1).

Fear: Trump in the White House presents readers with a report of the Trump White House based on “multiple deep background interviews with firsthand sources” (Woodward, 2018, “Source Notes” pp. 363-390). Woodward presents readers with an inside look at what seems to be a White House in chaos. The story starts eight months into Trump’s term as President of the United States. Woodward opens with an account of a letter draft to the President of South Korea which would pull the United States out of KORUS, the United States – Korea Free Trade Agreement (Woodward, 2018, p. xvii). Woodward (2018) continues to explain in detail how Gary Cohn and Rob Porter “worked together to derail what they believed were Trump’s most impulsive and dangerous orders” (p. xix). From this example, Woodward takes his readers back to the beginning of the Donald Trump story, his rise to power, and how the White House drama of this administration continues to unfold in the headlines today.

Before the campaign, there was Steve Bannon, a scruffy looking, unkempt, right-wing media executive and strategist who was executive chairman of Breitbart News prior to becoming a chief strategist and senior counselor for Donald Trump. Bannon is a nationalist and holds to his America-first viewpoints. Bannon’s America-first viewpoint became the foundation for Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign, which included three points of focus: (1) to end mass illegal immigration (2) bring manufacturing back to the United States, and (3) get out of unnecessary foreign wars (Woodward, 2018). Bannon also encouraged the Trump campaign to focus on the fact that Donald Trump was not a politician, and that the campaign should focus the attention mostly on the Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Throughout the book, Woodward provides example after example as to how Bannon influenced the campaign and the policies that laid the foundation for the White House we see today. However, even Bannon’s influence was limited when it came to Trump’s real inner circle, which is inclusive of the Trump family that include his wife, Melania; his son, Donald (Don) Trump, Jr.; his daughter, Ivanka; and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In an article from CNN, Betsy Klein (2018) reports, “In a White House where the loyalty of some is in question, family members are among the very few Trump trusts completely” (para. 4).

In the first part of his book, Woodward describes a situation where Melania strongly refuses to sit to one side of Trump, with Ivanka on his other side while he makes a tearful apology about misogynist comments made years earlier. Although Melania did not sit next to Trump for this staged apology recommended by Kellyanne Conway, Melania did release a statement to the public expressing her dissatisfaction with his comments, but also shared her forgiveness in hopes that the public could do the same (Woodward, 2018). As I read this section of the Woodward’s book, I remembered the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. I thought about how this played out in the media when this story broke and how it continued to haunt Hillary Clinton throughout her Presidential campaign. Later in his book, Woodward then describes the West Wing’s views of Melania Trump and President Trump as having “sincere affection for each other” even though “she operated independently” (p. 174). According to Woodward (2018) “They ate dinner together at times, spent some time together; but they never really seemed to merge their lives” (p. 174).

Don Trump, Jr., who took over his father’s private businesses when his father took office, is said to be Trump’s most vocal advocate (Klein, 2018). Woodward’s mention of Don, Jr., focuses on his meetings with the Russians at Trump Tower in the middle of the presidential campaign. Closer to the inner workings of the Trump White House are both the first daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. Woodward references this power couple throughout his book, illustrating the influence they have on President Trump. Woodward clearly leaves his readers with the impression that although Ivanka was on the President’s staff, she did not see herself as a staffer. Woodward describes an altercation between Bannon and Ivanka when Bannon calls her out on working around the Chief of Staff, and not following protocol by working through him. Woodward (2018) states that Ivanka was not shy about using her title as the first daughter when she assertively shouted at Bannon that she was not a staffer, but the first daughter. According to Maxwell Tani (2017), Jared Kushner, as one of Trump’s senior advisors, was “tasked by his father-in-law to solve some of the world’s most complex and confounding political problems domestically and abroad” (para. 2). Throughout Fear, Woodward makes mention of Kushner and his involvement in the Trump White House.

Outside of Trump’s immediate family, Woodward’s list of players, who seem to come and go, is extensive. Woodward does a great job weaving the narratives of the various players into the story of this White House administration. Woodward discusses the campaign, the Mueller report, immigration, trade, and the role this administration plays in the world and at home. Woodward paints a picture of how Trump was selected as the Republican candidate and then molded into the image of what the powers in control of the money wanted as the President of the United States. The chaos exposed by the reports from Woodward’s deep background interviews reflects not only the fear that some Americans may feel from reading his book, but is also reflective of the fear that individuals may have from working in and with the current White House administration.

After I finished listening to the book, I found that I needed some time to process and digest everything that I had just listened to. I decided to turn on the radio. The 1968 Simon and Garfunkel song “At the Zoo” was playing.

The monkeys stand for honesty | Giraffes are insincere| And the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb| orangutans are skeptical | Of changes in their cages | And the zookeeper is very fond of rum | Zebras are reactionaries | Antelopes are missionaries | Pigeons plot in secrecy | And hamsters turn on frequently | What a gas, you gotta come and see | At the zoo… (Simon, 2018, lines 16 – 29)

The timing of the song was a perfect ending to a well-written book. The Trump White House, as Woodward describes it, was (and still is) a zoo. As I continue to follow the news and the current state of the nation, I remember Watergate, and the scandals of a President my parents did not respect. I turned off the radio and sat in silence for a few seconds until another song/poem came into mind titled “‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’: Allen Ginsberg’s 1996 Collaboration with Phillip Glass and Paul McCartney.” I wondered about the agelessness of the songs and poetry of the Fifties Beat Generation and the Rock music of the Sixties. My mind finally wandered to Bob Dylan and I asked myself are the times “A-Changin”?

 

References

Klein, B. (2018). How Don Jr. became the President’s most vocal defender. CNN Politics. Retrieved on December 10, 2018 from https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/15/politics/donald-trump-jr-defender/index.html

Simon, P. (2018). At the zoo. Paul Simon. Retrieved on December 5, 2018 from https://www.paulsimon.com/song/zoo/

Tani, M. (2017). Here are all the duties Jared Kushner has in the Trump administration. Business Insider. Retrieved on December 10, 2018 from https://www.businessinsider.com/what-does-jared-kushner-do-in-trump-administration-2017-4

Woodward, B. (2018). Fear: Trump in the White House. Simon and Schuster: NY, NY

Woodward, B. (n.d.) Bob Woodward. Retrieved on December 5, 2018 from http://bobwoodward.com/

 

*Cathy Smith is a Full-time Faculty member at the University of Phoenix. She has taught at all grade levels, from kindergarten through college, as well as ESL. She herself is a bilingual citizen and advocates for Dreamers and DACA. She has many Things to Say about politics and the current Agent Orangenikov currently invading the Oval Office.

Persepolis

9516Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I read it as a: paperback

Source: public library

Length: 153 pp

Publisher: Pantheon

Year: 2004

Persepolis is the graphic novel memoir of Satrapi’s early life in Iran. It begins when she was about 10 but gets more in depth when she is around 12-14. She takes her readers through the political upheaval and conflicts that took the region from a progressive nation to the fundamentalist regime most of us think of now, all through the eyes of a young girl who lived through it all.

This was an incredible read. I know it’s been out for ages but I only now got around to reading it, and I’m so glad I did. On just a surface level, this is a terrific book to teach people about the basic history of the region and the more recent political issues that have resulted in the rise of such fundamentalism. On a deeper level, it shows readers what it was like to live through it, from being a child who doesn’t really understand what is happening, to a beloved family member being executed, to seeing your best friend’s body lying in rubble because her house got bombed. Yeah, that one hit me right in the feels. If anyone reads this and isn’t moved or doesn’t feel compassion, they’re just fundamentally broken. I think this should be required reading in all modern history classes for high school kids, to be honest.

The scene that did me in, and which makes this something that ought to be required reading for any high school kid, is summed up keenly by the below image. This was one time when graphic novels absolutely conveyed emotion better than prose. I needed no written words to know what she was feeling, because the image captured it. I was feeling it with her.

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Image from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Underground Airlines

35051774Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: William DeMerritt

Source: my own collection

Length: 9:28:00

Publisher: Hatchette Audio

Year: 2016

The premise of this alt-history novel is WHAT IF America had never had a Civil War? What if slavery was enshrined in the Constitution? There are four states – the Hard Four – which still have slavery, a highly regulated system with a lot of checks and balances. People like to think that it is not the slavery of the 1800s or even “fifty years ago,” but those people are incorrect. And it’s fucking slavery. Enter Victor, a young man who had once been a slave himself and managed to escape. He maintains his freedom by working for a shady government official as a runaway slave catcher, a job he is very good at but which gives him a great deal of conflict. His newest case is to track down a runaway named Jackdaw who is thought to be headed to Indianapolis. Along the way, Victor encounters shades of his past that he had tried to escape or push down, and learns that even the shady people he reluctantly works for are not at all what they appear to be.

This was a horrifying book, mostly because I don’t think something like this is really that far from truth. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to envision an America that still has slavery, judging from the revolting news we see everyday. There is rampant racism and neonazis and white supremacists and other disgusting groups who would probably jump at a chance to live in a world Winters portrays here. The poverty wages that many, many people earn are hardly better than slavery in this country, and in many other countries, there are sweathouse jobs that I would argue do constitute slavery conditions. So yeah, this book was terrifying. It is too easy to see this as reality. Let’s keep books like this fiction.

For as horrifying as I found this book to be, I was actually kind of bored with it. I thought the pacing was uneven and the plot a bit disjointed. It made it hard for me to follow at times. The characters as well felt rather flat and were hard to connect with. The narrator did a great job, though, using a variety of voices to differentiate everyone, which made it more appealing to listen to. I would still recommend this book, but perhaps not as an audiobook. I think I might have been more interested if I had eyeball read it instead. Maybe. I still think the characters would have felt one-dimensional and the pacing would still be uneven.

Bluebird, Bluebird

40605488Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: JD Jackson

Source: my own Audible collection

Length: 9:25:00

Publisher: Hachette Audio

Year: 2017

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger who is on suspension. While he is called home to Lark, TX, he begins digging around in the deaths of two people – a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, found in the same bayou two days apart. Darren starts investigating, even though he is suspended, in an attempt to head off the racial tensions building in the tiny town.

This is the first book of Locke’s I’ve read. Her prose is rich and evokes a great deal of authenticity regarding race relations in tiny, backwoods Southern towns. I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was set in modern times, not 50 years or more ago. The details of the crimes were complex and believable within the scope of the story. I really found her writing to be relevant for many issues society still, sadly, deals with today. She showed how racism is deeply ingrained in both the white and black communities, which is so sad on every level.

That said, I didn’t actually like this book much. I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. I didn’t like how Darren would use his badge to manipulate people to get what he wanted from them. I didn’t find most of the people terribly sympathetic, even the victims or the victims’ loved ones. I was mostly bored with the crime plot and it dragged too much for me. I like plenty of detail and don’t mind slow pacing but this was too slow. I can easily see why this book got so many 4 and 5 star reviews, because it really was well written and deals with important issues. It just wasn’t for me.

Small Country

36750086Small Country by Gaël Faye

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection (BOTM selection)

Length: 192 pp

Publisher: Hogarth

Year: 2018

Small Country is Gaël Faye’s debut novel, and it is a gutpunch. The novel is told through the eyes of a ten year old boy, Gaby, who is the child of a French father and Rwandan mother. He and his younger sister, Ama, live a fairly privileged life in a neighborhood of ex-pats, relatively sheltered from much of the political instability and poverty that the rest of the country is subject to. Gaby’s father actively discourages him from listening to or learning about politics and doesn’t believe children should join in adult conversations, so for the first half of the book, most of the political events are filtered through the lens of a child who doesn’t really understand what is going on. Gaby’s main sources of concern are his parents’ fracturing relationship and maintaining his friendships with Gino and the other children in his neighborhood. When the war touches his family, though, Gaby grows up faster than any child should ever have to.

This was a difficult read, obviously. The topic alone would make it so, but seeing it through a child’s eyes made it worse. It was obvious that Gaby had no real idea what was happening and that his life was a lot more sheltered than the lives of many of those around him, including his household staff. Gaby’s home was in a fairly exclusive, guarded, safe-ish area. The cook and gardener who worked at his house everyday lived in a different area and were in danger every time they set foot in their homes. I don’t think Gaby ever fully realized that. It was just that one day, he noticed Donatien and Prothe were not there anymore and he wondered where they were. The political events were similarly vague until near the end of the book. They were all filtered through Gaby’s childish ignorance, which wasn’t all his fault. His father kept his children ignorant of politics, whether for their own safety or for some other reason, we never really know. Clearly, it didn’t work to keep them safe or clear from war. It came to them anyway. It stripped Gaby of his childhood, brutally. The writing reflects the way Gaby tried to cling to his childhood, wanting to keep things the way they were, just wanting to play with his friends and not worry about protecting his street or neighborhood. One of the most poignant lines of the book was when Gaby told his friends Gino and Francis, “You’re my friends because I love you, not because you’re from one ethnic group or another. I don’t want anything to do with all that!” (153). He is clinging to a childhood that has already deserted him, but he has not yet realized it, and it is heartbreaking.

How much of Gaby’s childhood was taken from him is really highlighted in the letters he exchanges with his French pen pal, a ten year old girl named Laure. In one of his letters, Gaby told Laure about the elections held in Burundi and how the people turned out in their droves to vote, told her about the political parties in the country, the candidates, and who ultimately won the election and why it was such a big deal to the people. In return, Laure sent a three-line letter, telling him she was having a fun vacation at the beach and that what he had written to her was funny. What Gaby wrote didn’t even register to Laure as an actual event, or that another child the same age as her could be living through something as impactful as a democratic election, as horrific as a genocide. It makes me think of this when he is thinking to himself, years later, “I used to think I was exiled from my country. But, in retracing the steps of my past, I have understood that I was exiled from my childhood. Which seems so much crueler.” (179).

This is a book that I will be thinking about for a long time.