Friday, September 8, 2017

Hum if You Don't Know the Words

Title:  Hum if You Don't Know the Words
Author:  Bianca Marais
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0399575065 / 978-0399575068

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I joined up the last two lines of the hopscotch grid and wrote a big '10' in top square."

Favorite Quote:  "What greater gift can you give another than to say:  I see you, I hear you, and you are not alone?"

A mother wonders how to keep her daughter safe. A daughter wonders if, with her parents gone, safety is ever possible. Beauty and Robin - a woman and a girl - find their lives forever altered in the Soweto Uprising in 1976 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The history that is the basis of this book is as follows. Thousands of Black South African students rose in protests over a decree that introduced Afrikaans as a language of instruction in Soweto school. The language, associated with apartheid, has been termed by Desmond Tutu as "the language of the oppressor." Johannesburg police responded with force. Police released the death count at 200, but most reports set the number much higher.

In this book, Beauty Mbali is Xhosa woman from a rural village in Transkei. She is educated, a teacher herself, and a single parent after the death of her husband in the mines. She comes to Johannesburg in search her seventeen year old daughter, who is a student in Johannesburg. Beauty learns that Nomsa is one of the leaders in the uprising and is now missing. Beauty's one instinct as a mother is to bring her daughter home to safety.

Robin is a nine-year old white girl. She lives a privileged life in Johannesburg with her parents. Her father is an official in the mines. Robin's parents leave for an evening out with friends. The next news is that protesters have killed them both. Robin is packed of to live with her aunt, who is unmarried, sometimes irresponsible, and in a career that does not lend itself to having a child in her home.

In the aftermath, the stories of Beauty and Robin meet and interweave. Told through their alternating perspectives, the book presents two very different images of the same world - one facing the harsh reality and one dealing with the harsh reality with the innocence and self-centered nature of a child. The book highlights Beauty's statement, "I want her to understand that two men can be in the exact same place doing the exact same things while wearing the exact same clothes and yet they can still be worlds apart." She makes the statement about people living in a world of apartheid and discrimination, but it holds true for all of life's experiences.

Beauty and Robin's stories are one of differences of race. Through secondary characters, the book also introduces prejudice and discrimination because of religion and sexual orientation. While absolutely real, the story lines are unnecessary to this book.

Beauty and Robin's perspectives are also those of an adult and a child. As the book progresses and particularly at the end, the events and actions attributed to the child seem too far-fetched to seem real in the volatile, violent environment. While I completely follow the story, towards the end, it loses the sense of reality that permeates the rest of the book. However, it remains a moving and touching story and highlights the point once again that in a war, innocent victims exist on all sides of the conflict.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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