MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Editor's Choice

Race Against TimeClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Jerry Mitchell

Summary

It took forty-one years before the mastermind was brought to trial and finally convicted for the three innocent lives he took. If there is one man who helped pave the way for justice, it is investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell.

In Race Against Time, Mitchell takes readers on the twisting, pulse-racing road that led to the reopening of four of the most infamous killings from the days of the civil rights movement, decades after the fact. His work played a central role in bringing killers to justice for the assassination of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer, the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham and the Mississippi Burning case. Mitchell reveals how he unearthed secret documents, found long-lost suspects and witnesses, building up evidence strong enough to take on the Klan. He takes us into every harrowing scene along the way, as when Mitchell goes into the lion's den, meeting one-on-one with the very murderers he is seeking to catch. His efforts have put four leading Klansmen behind bars, years after they thought they had gotten away with murder.

Race Against Time is an astonishing, courageous story capturing a historic race for justice, as the past is uncovered, clue by clue, and long-ignored evils are brought into the light. This is a landmark book and essential reading for all Americans.

BookBrowse Review

Jerry Mitchell spent nearly three decades trailing cold cases from the Civil Rights Movement. As a court reporter in the 1980s, he covered day-to-day cases for the Clarion-Ledger, a respected Jackson, Mississippi paper. When he received a lead about an old Civil Rights Era murder case (see Beyond the Book), he shifted his investigative work to unveiling the truths of the past. His efforts reignited the legal process in several instances, and today, he's known for chipping away at some of the most notorious race cases in Mississippi and the surrounding South. In Race Against Time, Mitchell relays his detective work through the late-80s, '90s and '00s, describing the paths these cases took in and out of the courtroom—from interviewing the Ku Klux Klan to discovering secret FBI spy documents called the Sovereignty Commission files.

Throughout the '50s and '60s, hundreds of people were killed working to secure basic human rights for people of color, attempting to end legalized discrimination, secure voters' rights, eliminate legalized segregation, and stop disenfranchisement. Mitchell's book focuses on four of these cases: the assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the firebomb assassination of community activist Vernon Dahmer, the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four children, and the "Freedom Summer Murders" of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. With most of the physical evidence destroyed and potential witnesses dying off, it truly is a race against time as he unearths the truth and pushes for legal action before it's too late.

Mitchell's writing is engaging and impactful from start to finish. Though told largely in his own words from a present point-of-view, Race Against Time is a fascinating mixture of interviews, court transcripts, testimonies, personal conversations, article excerpts, secret files, dead-of-night tip-offs and secret meetings. Readers are drawn directly into the hearts of these cases, stunned by breaking revelations right alongside the reporter. He peppers in pieces of his family life, career and personal perspective, creating a cohesive narrative and connecting the cases together.

Readers will get a good sense of the wider context of the social movements of the era as well, including the organizations that pushed for progress during the Civil Rights Movement, but also their regressive counterparts that promoted anti-Semitism, white nationalism, ethnocentrism and racism. Mitchell explains how these organizations functioned internally and how the murderers within them got away with their crimes for decades as the result of biased juries, crooked law enforcement, government intervention and cover-ups.

Despite the 30+ awards Mitchell has accepted for his contributions to journalism, some have criticized his work, arguing that the past ought to be left in the past. Why this reporting, and why now? Throughout the book, he responds to these questions through the words of the families, communities, survivors and activists surrounding these cases. In 2005, when Attorney General Jim Hood delivered closing statements to the jury in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, implicated in the Freedom Summer murders, he stated the significance of these types of cases: "Many think it's too late to look back at the skeletons of our past, but these skeletons have names, and they have faces." Many people want to acknowledge the past so that they can honor the memory of martyrs, grieve the losses, and move forward. Others fear that history will repeat itself if these crimes go unpunished. Some simply argue for the inherent value of justice. Mitchell declares that, regardless of the reason, "We must remember, and then act."

For more information on Jerry Mitchell's work, you may wish to listen to a story he told The Moth about interviewing Ku Klux Klan members, or watch the TEDTalk in which he discusses some of his biggest breakthroughs.

Book reviewed by Jamie Chornoby

Beyond the Book:
Looking Back On Mississippi Burning (1988)

Mississippi Burning film posterIn December 1988, the controversial crime-thriller movie Mississippi Burning was released. It follows two FBI agents—played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe—who investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers. The agents' efforts to solve the case are hindered by a hostile local police force and the Ku Klux Klan.

Director Alan Parker and writer Chris Gerolmo loosely based the movie on the murders of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, which occurred in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1964. These three civil rights activists belonged to the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They joined Freedom Summer—also known as the Mississippi Summer Project—to participate in a direct action campaign of registering African-American voters. It cost them their lives. According to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) archives, the activism of this summer resulted in six documented murders, plus four others critically wounded, 35 confirmed shootings, 80 people beaten, and over 1,000 activist arrests.

Some reviewers felt the film captured the historical moment accurately—from cultural touchstones to the look of the town and the attitudes of the people—and the dialogue was deemed authentic. The cast were also praised for their stellar performances, and the film was nominated for seven Oscars and won Best Cinematography.

However, Mississippi Burning received formidable backlash. Released 24 years after the actual murders, it was contentious among audiences who still felt the trauma and anger of the brazen crimes. In real life, justice had not been served. The movie portrayed the graphic violence and brutality of the events and attitudes surrounding it, but a reviewer at the Chicago Reader argued it diverged too severely from "history, sociology, or even common sense." Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times declared that the movie failed audiences by diminishing the role of black people in publicizing the case, pushing for answers, and generating a social movement. Instead, it glorified the white FBI agents, who were largely unhelpful in achieving justice or resolving the case. These critiques argued it was a dishonest portrayal of white heroism, a too-stark departure from the reality activists had suffered through.

When Mississippi's own Clarion-Ledger covered the movie premiere, they sent junior journalist Jerry Mitchell. He thought it would be a minor story, a welcome diversion from his daily courtroom reporting. By happenstance, at the premiere, seated beside Mitchell was Roy K. Moore, the head of the Mississippi division of the FBI in 1964. Behind special agent Moore were Jim Ingram, who led the FBI's civil rights desk in Mississippi that year, and Bill Minor, a journalist who had covered the murders when they happened. After talking to these men, along with press secretary Kevin Vandenbroek, who nudged him to look into the statute of limitations, Mitchell began digging into the story. He writes about this and other cases he worked on in Race Against Time.

Mississippi Burning film poster, courtesy of IMDB

The ResistersClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Gish Jen

Summary

The angel-fair "Netted" have jobs, and literally occupy the high ground. The "Surplus" live on swampland if they're lucky, on water if they're not.

The story: To a Surplus couple--he once a professor, she still a lawyer--is born a Blasian girl with a golden arm. At two, Gwen is hurling her stuffed animals from the crib; by ten, she can hit whatever target she likes. Her teens find her happily playing in an underground baseball league.

When AutoAmerica rejoins the Olympics, though--with a special eye on beating ChinRussia--Gwen attracts interest. Soon she finds herself playing ball with the Netted even as her mother challenges the very foundations of this divided society.

A moving and important story of an America that seems ever more possible, The Resisters is also the story of one family struggling to maintain its humanity and normalcy in circumstances that threaten their every value--as well as their very existence.

Extraordinary and ordinary, charming and electrifying, this is Gish Jen at her most irresistible.

BookBrowse Review

Gish Jen's The Resisters depicts a future United States, dubbed AutoAmerica, where climate change and convenience culture have resulted in a waterlogged surveillance society. The lower Surplus class live in AutoHouses (or AutoHouseboats) and accumulate a kind of currency in the form of Living Points, which they earn from consuming the creations of the Netted, the producing upper class. All the while, the Surplus are subject to the watchful eye of Aunt Nettie, an ever-present version of the internet that doubles as a ruling power.

Like many other dystopian novels, The Resisters can be read as a cautionary tale. However, while the book has a lot to say about the general pitfalls of investing in a consumerist society, it more specifically demonstrates how the dream of class ascension in such a society is a cruel and complicated beast, and it does so through the most American of sports: baseball.

The story focuses on a Surplus girl named Gwen, whose extraordinary pitching ability gives her a chance to level up in life. (Though two of the main characters are young people, the book is written for an adult audience.) Much of the book's rising action is tied to the question of whether or not Gwen will use her baseball talent as a ticket to attend college, a privilege not normally afforded to the Surplus, and possibly eventually "Cross Over" to the Netted class.

The book is narrated by Gwen's father Grant, a former teacher who is racially categorized as "coppertoned." His wife Eleanor, a lawyer of mixed Caucasian and Asian descent with a history of advocating on behalf of Surplus citizens, has twice been invited to Cross Over but refused, thereby becoming a "resister." Dedicated as they are to solidarity with their fellow Surplus, Eleanor and Grant have mixed feelings about Gwen going to college and playing baseball for a Netted team, but they encourage her to explore her choices.

Gwen's burgeoning success in the sports world is complicated by her friendship with Ondi, another mixed-race Blasian (Afro-Asian) girl who has her own ambitions where baseball and higher education are concerned. It soon becomes clear that the opportunities afforded to Gwen come at a price, as does being female and Surplus in baseball, which in AutoAmerica is a coed sport but still largely male and Netted. Pressures to conform to Netted norms when in Netted settings are great, to the point that a skin lightening procedure called PermaDerm is available for coppertoned people who want to appear "angelfair," the white-equivalent designation that applies to most of the members of the Netted class.

Ondi, who lacks the social currency and stability Gwen's pitching skills bring her, appears to be more willing to conform to expectations at times, but also more prone to spontaneous acts of rebellion, which creates tension between the two. The plot points built around their struggles don't just draw obvious parallels to racism in American society in general, but also raise questions about how adequate and meaningful current diversity and inclusion initiatives really are, especially when they focus on giving just a few marginalized people opportunities and then fail to change the hostile environments those opportunities put them in.

The stressful, ultra-connected atmosphere of AutoAmerica is mercifully tempered by Eleanor and Grant's countercultural habits: They avoid the "mall truck" food that would earn them Living Points, opting to grow their own vegetables and do their own baking. They home-school Gwen and teach her classic literature and history, rather than leaving her in the Surplus school environment, which prioritizes consumption over education. Through details like these, along with the presence of baseball itself—which seems relatively quaint in AutoAmerica—Jen effectively blends nostalgia for a mythical American past with the anxiety of a consumerist country forever reaching for the future, creating a society with new quirks that nevertheless doesn't feel that dissimilar from our own.

At times, the book's world-building gets in the way of its plot development. Grant's narration can feel overwhelming as he fits tangents and backstory into the current timeline while dropping myriad product names (DeviceWatch, DisposaCloth, etc.). The names are there to illustrate a point about the ubiquity of branding, of course, but the flow of Gwen's story occasionally loses its momentum in her father's meandering references and exposition. However, this doesn't stop the novel from arcing naturally to a satisfying, if sobering, conclusion.

Much more than a cautionary tale, The Resisters feels like a generous space to sit with the sadder truths of our consumption-driven society. While it doesn't shy away from the specifics of how a system lacking in basic humanity hurts people (and some more than others), it also shows faith that the forces able to overcome (or at least resist) such a system exist.

Book reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

Beyond the Book:
Smart Homes and the Internet of Things

Hand holding a cellphone outside of a houseIn Gish Jen's The Resisters, people live in AutoHouses, internet-linked homes that are capable of performing certain automated tasks for their inhabitants, such as cleaning up dropped objects and regulating temperature, but that are also used for government surveillance. While the homes in Jen's novel operate at a much more advanced level than current technology, smart homes, or houses in which devices are connected to a digital network, are already very much a reality. These homes, along with smart appliances and other everyday objects that are linked through wireless systems, are sometimes referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT).

Non-wireless home automation can be traced back to 1975, when a Scottish company, Pico Electronics, designed an electronic automation protocol called X10 that uses the home's electrical wiring to allow devices to communicate together. Products using this standard, which are still widely available, range from simple wall switches that turn on a single light to complex modules, interfaces and panels that can manage multiple functions from one place. This allows you to consolidate security features, such as cameras and alarms, along with everyday household items like lamps and kitchen appliances.

With the recent explosion of wireless technology, home automation has advanced rapidly, with many of the world's largest technology companies developing a broad range of internet-connected "smart" products such as thermostats, doorbells, security cameras, lights and a wide range of other devices. However, common standards have yet to emerge, and interoperability between these devices can be a challenge. Even so, these newer systems, generally connected together through the internet (hence the name "Internet of Things"), make it possible to control functions like adjusting a thermostat, locking and unlocking doors, controlling a television set, operating a security camera system and more, either locally or remotely over the internet. In addition, with the growing sophistication of virtual assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, devices can often be managed by voice commands. In The Resisters, the house where the narrator lives with his family doesn't just communicate by responding to basic commands, but is sentient to the point of making snarky comments, offering unsolicited advice and even breaking into song. Thankfully, we are not quite there—yet.

The Resisters explores issues related to unwanted surveillance. Similar privacy concerns surround current IoT devices, although the surveillance is more often by a large corporation rather than a government. An additional concern is that IoT smart homes and appliances can be targeted by hackers. An effectively unsettling (but also funny) fictional example is a scene in Season 2 of the TV series Mr. Robot where Susan Jacobs, a corporate higher-up, has her smart house hacked by an activist group called "fsociety." In the scene, a wall projector turns on by itself and the lights go off while Jacobs is in her indoor swimming pool. Then the water in her shower turns scorching hot and the thermostat drops to 53 degrees. Eventually, we see her on the phone, calling for help while multiple audio and visual devices create a cacophony in the background. "Unplug what?" she says. "Everything is inside the walls."

Despite fears over these types of scenarios, there are good reasons not to write off the Internet of Things completely. Smart houses provide people many potential benefits that go beyond mere convenience. The ability to remotely control various functions can make homes more accessible and comfortable for those with disabilities, for example, or for elderly homeowners. Smart houses can also be more environmentally friendly, as they can be outfitted with features that allow you to track and schedule energy use.

Smart home image, courtesy of PC Magazine

The MerciesClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Summary

Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves.

Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband's authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God, and flooded with a mighty evil.

As Maren and Ursa are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them, with Absalom's iron rule threatening Vardø's very existence.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, The Mercies is a story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.

BookBrowse Review

It's 1617 and a violent storm has claimed the lives of 40 fishermen off the coast of Vardø, a remote Norwegian settlement. Aside from a handful of elders, this amounts to almost the entire male population, leaving behind a devastated community of women and children. These women spend the next three years establishing a newfound self-sufficiency while navigating their immense collective grief. This matriarchy is interrupted by the arrival of Absalom Cornet, a God-fearing Christian and renowned witch hunter from Scotland. He is summoned by the King of Norway to bring the women of Vardø to heel once more, and to stamp out any lingering trace of native Sámi culture—its spiritualism and strong ties to the land considered an obstacle to establishing absolute reverence for his own God.

With subtlety and tact, Kiran Millwood Hargrave explores the ingrained societal roles that define and separate us, with a particular focus on the trappings of gender and religion. Though distressed by their losses, the women of Vardø experience an unexpected liberty when forced to take over duties once reserved for men. Tensions already existed between those who followed Christian teachings and those who favored older Sámi ways, but a code of tolerance made room for everyone's beliefs. It is only with the arrival of Cornet, and his tyrannical insistence that everyone follow the rule of the Church—lest they be accused of witchcraft—that frays begin to show. The women are increasingly forced to declare their loyalties, independence crushed by the vise-like grip of resurgent patriarchy. Differences that were once accepted are now the grounds for accusation, trial and certain death. There is great sadness in witnessing this once harmonious community turning on itself—the corrupting power of fear driving former friends to betray each other in desperate bids to secure their own safety.

Among these women are Maren, a native of Vardø, and Ursa, Cornet's new wife. The latter is plucked from the comparative splendor of a wealthy home in Bergen with all the grace and romance of a business transaction during Cornet's journey from Scotland. Adjusting from life in a populous city in the southwest to the barren expanse of the icy north is no small feat, and through the two women's blossoming relationship, Hargrave touches on the delicate task of bridging class divides, the pain of forbidden love and the quiet heroism of following your heart when daring to be different is enough to get you killed.

In addition to presenting nuanced, multifaceted characters, the author skillfully evokes this particular time and place. Crystalline prose captures the raw power and awe-inspiring beauty of the landscape with equal fervor; the howl of the wind, the swell of the sea and the bite of salt practically leaping from the page. With such a vivid and transporting atmosphere, the reader remains fully invested in the story's outcome, despite the sense of inevitable doom that comes with a novel inspired by true tragic events. The author does, in fact, manage to keep the reader guessing along the way to a surprising extent. Emotional beats hit at all the right moments, and the denouement is powerfully moving in its avoidance of anticipated tropes. The narrative is impressively fresh, especially as the author sticks close to the official version of events.

The horror of witch trials—how they were used as a front to exert control and wipe out so-called "undesirables"—has been explored in fiction many times before. It is to Hargrave's credit that The Mercies feels no less emotionally engaging, factually enlightening, thematically resonant and narratively compelling as a result. She breathes life into the experiences of those too often relegated to mere statistics. If history books define victims of such trials by their deaths alone, this author asks us to remember them for the lives and loves they fought to defend.

Book reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

Beyond the Book:
Remembering the Victims of the Vardø Witch Trials

Steilnest Memorial featuring mirrors and flameFor such a small and remote community, Vardø has endured more than its share of tragedy. In 1617, the small fishing town found at the easternmost point of Norway was hit by a violent storm. Its arrival was so sudden and devastating, it all but wiped out the male population, leaving behind a community of shell shocked women and children. Their journey through grief, and their attempt to adjust to a whole new way of life, was made all the more difficult by the threat of witch hunts spreading across Europe at the time. This scenario is evocatively captured in Kiran Millwood Hargrave's novel The Mercies.

Witch trials (which are estimated to have taken anywhere from 16,000 to 50,000 lives in Europe alone) originated in the 15th century, but hit their peak in the 17th century when they spread all across the European continent, including Scandinavia. Witch hunters made the rounds, called upon by the Church and the governing bodies of individual nations to intervene where non-Christian beliefs were prevalent. The scrutiny that fell on Vardø was particularly harsh for such a sparsely populated expanse of land. Its geographical seclusion, largely female population, and conflict between Sámi and Christian cultures made it an ideal target, presenting a ripe opportunity for the Church to make an example of its people and showcase their increasing power.

Any woman in the wider Finnmark region (in northern Norway, now known as Troms og Finnmark) who defied the strict role set out for her by society was at risk of accusation, as was anyone who shunned Christian teachings in favor of traditional Sámi ways of life. Employing the "trial by water" technique, those the local government or clergy considered suspicious were bound hand and foot and thrown into the sea. They believed a witch would float, meaning she must be burned at the stake, while an innocent woman would sink, meaning vindication in spite of a watery end. In short, escape was virtually impossible.

The modern gaze allows us to see witch trials for what they were: an irrational response to fear of the unknown, and a horrifying abuse of power, employed as a means of stamping out difference and defiance. To put the scale of Vardø's losses into perspective, the Salem Witch Trials in the U.S. saw 200 people accused of witchcraft, resulting in 19 executions, compared to 91 executions in Vardø from 135 accusations.

It seems remarkable then that the suffering and injustice faced by the people of Vardø went largely forgotten for so many years. In 2011, architect Peter Zumthor and contemporary artist Louise Bourgeois sought to honor the trial's victims with a haunting tribute on the site where the majority of the executions took place. Known as the Steilneset memorial, the installation includes a metal chair topped by a perpetually lit flame, the light of the fire bouncing off a series of surrounding mirrors. These mirrors loom like sentinels standing in judgment, reflecting the very worst humanity is capable of. There is also a 400-foot long walkway within a giant silk cocoon, suspended by a vast wooden framework. From each of the 91 windows along this corridor, a lit bulb shines out onto the stark landscape beyond—one for each person wrongfully put to death. Small plaques by the side of the windows immortalize what little information could be gathered about each victim. These help to humanize the statistics, reminding us of the individuality of those affected by the trials, a poignant idea taken and built upon in The Mercies.

Steilnest Memorial photograph by Bjarne Riesto

Buried Beneath the Baobab TreeClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Summary

A new pair of shoes, a university degree, a husband - these are the things that a girl dreams of in a Nigerian village. And with a government scholarship right around the corner, everyone can see that these dreams aren't too far out of reach.

But the girl's dreams turn to nightmares when her village is attacked by Boko Haram in the middle of the night. Kidnapped, she is taken with other girls and women into the forest where she is forced to follow her captors' radical beliefs and watch as her best friend slowly accepts everything she's been told.

Still, the girl defends her existence. As impossible as escape may seem, her life - her future - is hers to fight for.

BookBrowse Review

Ya Ta, the main character in Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's novel, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, lives in rural northeastern Nigeria and is the first student from her village to gain a scholarship to boarding school. In this extremely rural region of the country, many children, both boys and girls, do not complete primary school. Some, like Ya Ta's brothers, stay home to help work the fields, while others are married young and quit school. Here, Christian and Muslim families have long coexisted in harmony, embracing traditional tribal rites while also attending church or mosque. The novel opens with Ya Ta's future plans being interrupted by Boko Haram, a violent militia, raiding her village.

Boko Haram is an armed insurgency that espouses a corrupted vision of Islam. Its name means "western school is forbidden" in the northern Nigerian language of Hausa. Over the past decade, it has gained traction in parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon in its attempt to impose Islamic law as the sole law by inflicting violent assaults, threats, and abduction to terrorize civilians and evade the rule of law. The group came to international media attention in 2014 after kidnapping 276 young girls from a school in Chibok, a town in northern Nigeria. As of September 2018, more than 100 Chibok girls remain missing. Thousands of other youth have been taken and more than two million people have been displaced by the Boko Haram terror. Characters in Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree are based on real people interviewed by the author. Historical background is detailed in the afterword, titled "The Chosen Generation," written by Italian journalist Viviana Mazza, who is one of Nwaubani's journalism colleagues.

The novel is set within this current political and cultural context. Ya Ta and her best friends, Sarah and Aisha, are abducted with dozens of other youth including Ya Ta's youngest brother, Jacob, and are held captive at Boko Haram camps hidden in Sambisa Forest. Narrated in first-person by Ya Ta, the story moves quickly through hundreds of very short chapters. Chapter titles such as "Tree of Life", "Once a Month," "The Voice on Papa's Radio," "Gossip," "The Pink Van," "This is Not Islam," "New Clothes," "Showing Off," and "Watching Men" carry readers deep inside this real-world test of survival.

Language is clear, and action is fast-paced. The girls become indoctrinated by their captors and eke out a bare-bones existence hidden away from the world: "'We do not intend to harm you,' the Leader says. 'We only want to make you good Muslim women.' Gripping each other's fingers tight, Sarah and I shift to his left-hand side with the other Christian women and girls, while Aisha stands on the right with the Muslims." Aisha, 14, is already married to a beloved husband arranged by her parents; she is determined to protect her own life and the life of her unborn child. The Christian girls are given new names. Ya Ta becomes Salamatu. Sarah is called Zainab. Captivity tests friendships. Zainab embraces most aspects of life with her new "husband" and camp rules, while Salamatu continues to resist in subtle ways. She seeks comfort in her memories of family, school, faith, and the way life used to be. She imagines a future at university and dreams up ways to escape her "husband," one of the fighters who, for some mysterious reason, always wears a mask. "In any case, whether he chooses to bury his face in a mask because it looks like a hippopotamus bottom or whether he is wary of dazzling damsels with his divine beauty, I do not want to marry him," she says.

Occasionally the captive girls hear rumors that government forces are near and will save them. But rescue is elusive, food is scarce, and loyalties are constantly tested. One day, hunger prompts Salamatu and Zainab to gather edibles from the forest and they delight in discovering a baobab tree (see Beyond the Book). So many of their previous childhood pastimes involved the baobab, they plan to stand on each other's shoulders to harvest fruit. But the truth is soon revealed: their captors have turned the shady area beneath the sacred tree into a mass grave.

Even if liberated, most former captives find return to "normal" life extremely difficult, for a variety of reasons. In the chapter "Better Life" Salamatu wonders: "How will the mother of a child with bad blood lift her head high among normal human beings? Life in the forest might have been better for me."

References to traditional West African images and customs will appeal to readers who want to learn about life in this part of the world. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is an ideal choice for book clubs and classroom discussion, and because of its short chapters and clear writing it will engage reluctant readers. Themes in the novel are relevant to contemporary teens everywhere: violence (including school violence), religious freedom, rule of law, gangs, sexual violence, peer pressure, family duty, missing parents, family separation, and teen empowerment. Nwaubani's previous novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa) for best first book and was a finalist for the Wole Soyinka Prize in Africa - a pan-African writing prize awarded biennially to the best literary work produced by an African. Her journalism appears in many media outlets including The New Yorker, Reuters, and BBC, where she has reported on the Chibok kidnappings and Boko Haram among many other topics.

Ultimately, Nwaubani has created a novel that is a hopeful call out to the resilient human spirit, showcasing young people and their communities who struggle to create a path forward from a place of violence and despair.

Book reviewed by Karen Lewis

Beyond the Book:
Baobab: The Tree of Life

Baobab TreeA prominent symbol in Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, the mighty baobab tree sparks the imagination because of its unusual shape and longevity. Traditional Shona myth explains that the tree showed too much pride and was always whining and calling other creatures bad names, so the creator turned it upside-down as punishment, hence it stands today with many root-like branches reaching to the sky.

Traditional medicinal lore ascribes powerful properties to the sacred baobab. Some say that baby boys who bathe in water infused with baobab bark will grow up strong. Others say that if you pick a baobab flower, you will be eaten by a lion; conversely, if you drink water infused with the seeds, you'll be protected from crocodile attacks. In some regions, couples like to marry beneath the baobab, believing it bestows fertility.

Baobab TreeBaobabs are deciduous, and function as prominent players in the ecosystem. Trees may live more than 2,000 years and can grow both taller and wider than 100 feet. They're especially visible because of their unusual, bulbous trunks and are native to Sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar and Australia. In Madagascar, the species Adonsonia grandidieri grows in groves with a distinctively tall, sculptured trunk and is a much-photographed tourist attraction. Baobab have also been cultivated (but are not native) in South Asia, the Americas and China.

Sunland BaobabBirds, reptiles, and small mammals such as monkeys nest in the baobab's branches. Bark can be peeled (without killing the tree) and woven into rope, baskets, cloth or hats. Weaver birds create basketlike nests that hang from their tallest branches, safely out of reach of browsing animals. The elaborate, night-blooming flowers attract bats for pollination. Baobab fruit is edible to humans and other creatures. Elephants munch the foliage and fibrous bark. Leaves & seeds are used for creams and skin ointments. Various components are crafted into remedies for stomach upset, insect bites and pain, among other ailments. There's an emerging niche market for using baobab fruit or dried powder as a superfood because of its high levels of vitamin C, calcium, fiber and antioxidants. As mentioned in Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, baobab leaves are used to prepare traditional soup, breads and beverages.

Sunland BaobabThe massive trunks store thousands of gallons of water and can be tapped into during the dry season. Famously, South African landowners turned the hollow space in the Sunland Baobab into a pub until 2017, when the landmark tree mysteriously broke apart and toppled. It was rumored to be the continent's largest baobab. Unfortunately, several other celebrity baobabs have also died during the past decade, and scientists are investigating the causes. Climate change? Human impact? Or maybe the trees are simply worn out, exhausted from their remarkably long lifespan.

Baobab GuardiansBaobab can be cultivated, although they're sensitive to climate and require up to 100 years before fruiting, and researchers are experimenting with grafting to speed up the process. A hopeful micro-enterprise is underway in the Limpopo Province, South Africa, where an organization called Baobab Guardians encourages village women to plant and nurture baobab seedlings until they're viable in the wild. These women – under the mentorship of botanist/forester Dr. Sarah Venter – protect the transplants from browsing animals and are compensated for their work. They also gather nutrient-rich baobab pods from mature trees, selling them to earn a modest cash income in a region where subsistence farming is the main livelihood and families often struggle to feed and educate their children.

Baobab Tree (Adansonia gregorii)
Baobab Tree (Adansonia digitata)
Two photos of Sunland Baobab
Baobab Guardians

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