Summary and book reviews of The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Elizabeth Weil

The Girl Who Smiled Beads

A Story of War and What Comes After

by Elizabeth Weil, Clemantine Wamariya

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Elizabeth Weil, Clemantine Wamariya X
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Elizabeth Weil, Clemantine Wamariya
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  • Published:
    Apr 2018, 288 pages

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Book Summary

A riveting story of dislocation, survival, and the power of stories to break or save us.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were "thunder." In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted asylum in the United States, where she embarked on another journey—to excavate her past and, after years of being made to feel less than human, claim her individuality.

Raw, urgent, and bracingly original, The Girl Who Smiled Beads captures the true costs and aftershocks of war: what is forever destroyed; what can be repaired; the fragility of memory; the disorientation that comes of other people seeing you only as broken—thinking you need, and want, to be saved. But it is about more than the brutality of war. It is about owning your experiences, about the life we create: intricately detailed, painful, beautiful, a work in progress.

Excerpt
The Girl Who Smiled Beads

The night before we taped the Oprah show, in 2006, I met my sister Claire at her apartment in a public housing unit in Edgewater, where she lived with the three kids she'd had before age twenty-two, thanks to her ex-husband, an aid worker who'd pursued her at a refugee camp. A black limo arrived and drove us to downtown Chicago, to the Omni Hotel, where my sister used to work. I now can't think about that moment without also thinking about my own naïveté, but at the time all I felt was elated.

I was eighteen, a junior at New Trier High School, living Monday through Friday with the Thomas family in Kenilworth, a fancy suburb. I belonged to the church youth group. I ran track. I'd played Fantine in the school production of Les Misérables. I was whoever anybody wanted me to be.

Claire, meanwhile, remained steadfast, herself, a seemingly rougher bargain. Unlike me, she was not a child when we got resettled in the United ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

This memoir is a must read, especially for those of us who live in the US. This is also a must read for all book groups and individuals who have the freedom to pick and choose not only what they read but, more importantly, have safe places to live and government intervention programs to help many of our less fortunate. I cannot recommend it strongly enough (Sandra H). I will be recommending this book to everyone I know who wishes to expand their view of the world. I know my book club will be reading it; it is exactly the type of thought provoking book we enjoy discussing (Catherine O).   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

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Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Not quite as attention-getting as memoirs by Ismail Beah or Scholastique Mukasonga, but a powerful record of the refugee experience all the same.

Booklist
In her prose as in her life, Wamariya is brave, intelligent, and generous. Sliding easily between past and present, this memoir is a soulful, searing story about how families survive.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This book is not a conventional story about war and its aftermath; it’s a powerful coming-of-age story in which a girl explores her identity in the wake of a brutal war that destroyed her family and home. Wamariya is an exceptional narrator and her story is unforgettable.

Library Journal
Starred Review, This beautifully written and touching account goes beyond the horror of war to recall the lived experience of a child trying to make sense of violence and strife. Intimate and lyrical, the narrative flows from Wamariya’s early experience to her life in the United States with equal grace. A must-read.

Author Blurb Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Extraordinary and heart-rending. Wamariya is as fiercely talented as she is courageous.

Author Blurb Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide; Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
Wamariya is unsparing in her criticisms of Western indifference and moral presumptuousness, and she subjects her own judgments and values to the same withering scrutiny, revealing a young woman that figures out how to survive but struggles to learn how to live. Her gripping and brutally honest reflections inspire us to count our blessings and summon us to follow her fierce and unrelenting example to try to help build the world we wish to see.

Reader Reviews

Sue

Brutally Honest
This is one of the most difficult books I have read, yet it is an essential read. It is at once a memoir and an expose. How can I ever relate to Clemantine’s life? I will never know her tragedy. The terrible genocide that was visited upon the ...   Read More

Julie M. (Golden Valley, MN)

Stories Can Heal Us
This is the stunning story of Clementine and her survival of the Rwandan genocide, her emigration to the United States at age 12 and her coming of age in a new country. She is heartbreaking and inspiring all at the same time. As a lover of ...   Read More

Paula B. (Albuquerque, NM)

Experience the life of a child refugee
I enjoyed this very timely book. The fresh look at the devastation of war and the angst of survival from the perspective of a child brings us face to face with the reality of many children in our war torn world. This personal story makes real what ...   Read More

Rosemary C. (Golden, CO)

A Riveting Account of the Aftermath of War
Clemantine Wamariya is an important writer who painfully, yet masterfully, exposes the atrocities of the Rwanda genocide and the effect on her and her family. She gives the reader glimpses, vignettes, of her life before the war, of her and her sister...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Rwanda Today

Many of us remember reading about the events that Clemantine Wamariya experienced as a six year old girl in Rwanda in 1994, when over barely 100 days, Rwanda's Hutu ethnic majority went on a rampage, brutally murdering the ethnic Tutsi minority. The state-sponsored slaughter, the culmination of at least 30 years of unrest, ended in July 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a group primarily composed of ethnic Tutsis under Paul Kagame's leadership, took over the government ending the slaughter that had taken more than 800,000 of the 7 million population. From that time on, Rwanda largely fell out of the news for most of us. So, here is a brief recap of events since then:

A view of contemporary Kigali, Rwanda's capitalRwanda was in a terrible state immediately ...

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