author: Terry Farish
date: Marshall Cavendish, May 2012
main character: Viola/Keji
I usually reviews books some time after they’ve hit the market, however I’ve been intrigued by the cover of The good braider for too long. I picked it up one afternoon and finished reading it that evening.
Upon turning the first page, I was transported to the Sudan where all the men are gone (forced to fight) and women and children live in fear not of what the soldiers will do to them, but when they will do it. The story is told in poem form, sometimes too sparse for a complete understand of specific incidents but not too sparse to prevent us from feeling the dusty roads on our bare feet. Keji and the women of her village take pride in the braids they create as their fingers instinctively created patterns that tell stories, relate circumstance and exhibit pride. “All men in Sudan will want to marry you…you are a girl from Juba” her mother tells her.
Keji and her family flee their home as conditions become increasingly dangerous and they eventually arrive in Maine, where Keji’s uncle lives. The bulk of the story takes place here, where Keji must redefine herself.
Mrs. Mejia takes my ESL class to the library.
We gather around her. I am the tallest and can see over
the head scarf of a Somali girl. Mrs. Mejia tells us to find
a book of poems, check it out, and take it home.
I worry about the poems. How can I afford them?
She opens a small book.
With one arm in the air and her red fingernails dancing,
she reads a poem called
I don’t completely understand it,
though I like the way it sounds.
It opens with the lines
“A gentle spring evening arrives
airily, unclouded by worldly dust.”
And ends with:
“Where is Nirvana?”
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.”
I’d like to discuss Nirvana with Lokolumbe tonight.
When Mrs. Mejia says again that we should each
pick a book, one student says she forgot her money.
“This is not a libraria, a bookstore. You don’t have to pay.
These are books you borrow. When you find your book,
take it to the desk and show your student ID.”
My eyes follow a red, gold, and blue river of books
up one shelf, then circling to the next shelf and the next.
I can take any of these? Habuba [grandmother], you cannot imagine.
Do I have to state that Farish is a White author because really, it’s just that she’s a talented storyteller. She did her research: learned the food, languages and nuanced life not only in Sudan but of Sudanese immigrants in Maine. We’re told a story that relates the human search for identity when so much is lost while basic, common human dignity remains intact. Her characters are real people and their story is quite affecting. In the same way that Keji artistically weaves the braids, Farish weaves the words.
This is Farish’s third book for young adults. She’s also written books and articles for children and adults. She blogs at The Elephant Rag and coordinates a Connections, a literacy program with the NH Humanities Council.