If You Want to Make God Laugh

Motherly love overcomes racial injustice (South African villages and capital city, also Goma, Zaire now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; 1993, 1994-1997 post-Apartheid): Almost six years ago, President Barack Obama delivered a rousing speech to a stadium-filled crowd in Johannesburg, one of the South African settings in this marvelous novel, to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, whose rise to power ended fifty-years of the racist Apartheid era. This is the same historical period Bianca Marais has chosen for If You Want to Make God Laugh, her second novel. (Her debut, Hum if You Don’t Know the Words, took place during Apartheid.) 

While the video doesn’t include the former President’s full speech, his uplifting words and the images are echoed in this memorable work. He spoke about the “moral necessity of racial justice,” knowing that “racial reconciliation,” “equality and justice,” “freedom and human rights” were not guaranteed. But, he wisely pointed out that the spirit of “Mandela’s greatest gift” was achieved and should never be forgotten, though in today’s highly divisive America it seems it has. That gift is:

“Recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

Imagine a novelist inspired by the glorious ambitions and grace of two eloquent Presidents, turning them into a heartbreaking and heart-uplifting tale showing how formidable it is to achieve racial understanding and compassion, to thoughtfully drive home Nelson Mandela’s message. Couple that with the fears and agony of the emerging AIDS epidemic in South Africa for mothers and their babies, as seen through the hearts of three female characters – and you’ll have the gist of the powerful themes tackled.

Two of the women are white and in their fifties, Delilah and Ruth. The third is seventeen and of Zulu ethnicity, Zodwa. Each keeps their sorrows, regrets, burdens from their pasts secret, to hide their shame and pain. To varying degrees, they accept their fates as a form of punishment: Delilah wrongly believes she deserves a “lifetime of heartbreak”; Ruth punishes herself in destructive ways; and from Zodwa’s perspective “it’s a quirk of fate or a spin of the wheel that decides who must suffer and who will be spared.”

Who is spared is key to the unwinding plot, and to what’s needed to make God laugh.

Delilah and Rose have not seen seen or spoken to each other in forty years. Early in the 435 fast-turning pages you’ll learn their oil-and-water relationship. Zodwa is a stranger to them, until a series of events brings the three together. Chapters alternate between them.

  • Delilah is living in Goma, Zaire before it became the Democratic Republic of the Congo bordering Rwanda, where a genocide ignited in 1994 (see In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills). She’s the complete opposite of flamboyant, outspoken, rich, alcoholic Ruth, comparing the two to “shooting stars [Ruth] and mason jars.”
  • Ruth is living in Cape Town, then leaves for her family’s neglected farmhouse and defunct avocado farm in a south coastal South African village, a last ditch effort to save a third divorce. Not as well-to-do as she once was, but the only one with money.
  • Zodwa’s mother knew the two white women decades ago when she was called Precious. Zodwa has the least, yet she’s the strongest, having sacrificed even more than the others, the one you’re likely to never forget. She’s been living in extreme poverty in a “squatters camp” in Magaliesburg, a province northwest of Johannesburg, to care for her severely ill mother.

A map of locations is included in the book.

While the three have experienced vastly different lives, they have something profoundly in common: motherhood, be it real or “a cotton-candy fluff of yearning.” Of course, they don’t know that when they first end up together in that farmhouse. It’s symbolic of the peace that could be had, but there’s no getting away from racial animosity, crime, and violence just because Mandela became President. “In the new South Africa, white people want to have black friends just to prove they’re not racist, but the only black people they know are their maids and gardeners.”

We meet a lot of “broken people” mourning the death and disappearance of their children; others abandoned by parents who’ve died from the conflicts, AIDS, and are so impoverished they’re unable to care for their babies. More suffering by these three women comes from ostracized loves, due to racial, religious, and cultural beliefs.

Ruth is a believer in signs, not so different than Zodwa’s Zulu culture’s belief in spiritual healers. “Some signs have saved my life,” Ruth says, “while others reminded me that I had a life worth saving.”

If You Want to Make God Laugh wants to remind us that all lives are worth saving. If only people would do the right thing.

You may wonder, like I do, whether an author who wasn’t born and spent much of her life in South Africa (Canada is now Marais’ home) – about the same age as Zodwa when Mandela came to power, and worked with women and children who were HIV-positive – could write such an historically and emotionally poignant novel? Perhaps, but the authenticity stirs, builds, bubbles over.

Delilah and Rose are Afrikaners who speak English and Afrikaans, a language defined in a welcomed four-page Glossary of Terms, found at the back of the book as: “derived from a form of Dutch brought to the Cape by white settlers from Holland in the seventeenth century.” Zodwa speaks English and Zulu, a language spoken by about 9 million people centered in the KwaZulu-Natal province where Zodwa lived with her grandmother, her gogo, until she’s summoned to care for her mother. The lush scenery of this region is world’s away from the filth and dangers of her mother’s shack. The helpful dictionary, then, includes both Afrikaans and Zulu words.

Mountains in Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
via Max Pixel [CC0]

As for the motherhood connection, a few details. In Goma, Delilah was working at an orphanage, home to over two hundred children, many “countries and missions later,” after she’d left the Catholic church. The children call her Granny, a word used for anyone forty or over; they used to call her Mother when she was younger. Initially, she felt they were “mocking me for my childless state.” Her evolution on motherhood takes her a long time to face up to, while Ruth’s response to mothering is, uncharacteristically, almost instinctual. Zodwa’s is not as immediate, but happens quite soon, and intensifies.

Their stories will become clear, but saying more will spoil the impact, which seems why the author is in no rush to hurry them. She wants us to feel what it takes for her characters to evolve over time, to find common ground. Chapters, though, are short, flow easily into one another, allowing us to absorb the challenges confronting these women.

Racism and its consequences are at the forefront. But a mother’s love is color-blind, as the women discover the bonds of motherhood, mothering, are the most powerful of all.


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Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race 1

Why did she do it? How did she do it? Winning the Mongol Derby (Mongolia, 2013): Rough Magic is a stunning memoir that leaves you with more questions than you started with. Those are: Why did Lara Prior-Palmer, at nineteen, enter “on a whim” the “longest and toughest horse race in the world,” in Mongolia? How did she win it, when half of the thirty competitors from around the globe never even finished the ten-day race that Prior-Palmer completed and won in only seven days?

Mongolia is considered the most sparsely populated country in the world. Of its over three million people, 25% to 40% are nomads and herders living in gers (like a “Russian yurt”) on grasslands, the steppes. A way of life that depends on horses; a country with “more love songs about horses than about women.”

Mongolian yurt
P.Lechien [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

For the British author, who splits her time between London and a small English village, Mongolia’s disorientating landscapes with “fourteen different microclimates” weren’t like anything she (or we) had known. The author is more at home in the English countryside than the “concrete nowheres” city. She’s also far more at home on a horse than with people, describing herself as someone with “a failure to emotionally engage.” Yet, she’s really not at home anywhere. “Why tie ourself to a place?” she wonders. Antithetical to so many searching-for-home memoirs.

This memoir is a search for self in spite of/regardless of place.

As for why more questions, two reasons. The writer thinks like a philosopher, constantly questioning herself and us with existential questions like: “Do you find yourself searching for the meaning of life?” She also chooses and spins her prose like a mystical poet, triggering spiritual questions. Quite fitting for an otherworldly country in East Asia that follows Buddhist and Shaman spiritual beliefs.

Both religions esteem nature. So do Mongolians who care so much about the land they wear “soft, curved soles to spare the stalks of the tiniest plants and to avoid hurting the earth.” And so does the author, who observes “we humans seem to have put a lot of energy into separating ourselves from nature.”

The Why question, then, is the easier one to answer.

To understand where the author’s mystical prose stems from consider her exotic academic pursuits. She went to Stanford University in the US, majored in two unusual subjects. One I had to look up: “conceptual history.” It explains her philosophical reflecting as this approach to understanding history and culture applies a philosophical bent. Her second major, Persian studies, includes language and culture, which accounts for references to poets, prophets, and a love for ancient history that’s “pre-concrete, pure horse.”

The author opens her memoir when she’s searching for what to do next in life, after graduating from high school and finding her au pair job in Austria claustrophobic for her restless soul.

Prior-Palmer is not someone who sees herself in flattering ways. “Simply befuddled,” a “scatterbrain,” and “ditzy” are not the characteristics you think of for surviving and accomplishing a grueling long-distance horse race with “no set route,” in vast, wild, diverse landscapes. She carried a race map, but “a map cannot lead a mind across a river.”

Perhaps dreaming does, when your dreams about “freedom and independence.” She lets us know from the outset these aspirations are very much on her mind, quoting the rough magic line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which she brings along with her. Freedom is an important theme in Shakespeare’s “final play, a play of dream, spirit, and sea.”

Why, then? She imagined the race would set her free.

While many questions are asked of us, much of the memoir feels like the author is talking to herself, in spare, lyrical, stream-of-consciousness prose.

Prior-Palmer began the race perceiving herself as non-competitive. When she meets one of the riders – twenty-year-old Devan from Texas, her bragging about being on the US Endurance Team irritated her greatly, stirring her. Overconfident Devan serves to motivate her, push her, intensifying as Devan was hours ahead of everyone for most of the race. “What had we all missed by not growing up in Texas?” One of her humorous, sarcastic thoughts. Even when she won, she didn’t boast, believing “overt ambition is disgraceful.”

Why, then? She was out to prove something to herself.

As to How she won, even the author can’t answer that. Woefully unprepared for endurance, cross-country riding, unlike her idol, her Aunt Lucinda. Lucinda Green is an Olympic champion in the British horse racing world. But the longest race in England couldn’t begin to compare to the Mongol Derby, designed to imitate Genghis Khan’s postal system in the 13th century, covering a mind-boggling 1000km or 620 miles!

Prior-Palmer spent only a month (others six months or more) preparing for a race that depended on her own fitness as well as horses – “horses’ hydration levels, gut sounds, lameness protocol, and heart rates.” More daunting, she had to learn to handle “semi-wild ponies” that are “rarely handled and therefore hypersensitive to human motion.” And she had to re-learn that twenty-five times. Twenty-five different horses, changing for a new horse at urtuus,“horse-changing stations.” That’s “twenty-five ponies saying Who are you? and Who are we?”

Another challenge was reaching each station (equipped with gers where the riders slept, although not always finding enough beds) by 8:30pm or you’re penalized. (Also penalized for returning a horse with an elevated heart rate.) This meant learning navigation tools as you don’t dare get lost, nor ride alone.

Enduring all of that, the author asks, as we do: “Why the need to go all that way and do such a thing?”

You don’t have to be a horse enthusiast to be moved by this provocative book. All you need is a desire to be inspired by someone who took a bold step, succeeding at something out-of-this-world. The author’s extraordinary mental fortitude belies her mother calling her a “sensitive mouse” and defies her compromised health, years of stomach aches and unknown pains, which you’ll discover are not in her head. A reason, it seems, she asks: “What gets you out of bed?”

Imagine all the calories burned riding up to fourteen rough hours a day. Then imagine consuming for breakfast just “fermented horse milk, the national drink” (if anything at all, because losing time rushes you.) Lunch not much better: noodle soup with mutton fat. Nourishment comes from the Mongolian people, welcoming and generous, giving what they can.

So many obstacles to overcome, but the author wouldn’t let anyone see her pain or fears. A very tall order given a film crew was making a documentary following the riders around, along with a TV reporter.

Fears are expressed privately in a Winnie-the-Pooh journal, a childish name but there’s wisdom in that bear and his animal friends’ words. Included in the journal are pretend letters written to the author’s mother; also notes about each horse and riding/landscape experience, which, presumably, allowed her to write vividly over the five years it took to craft her memoir.

The author’s race horses ranged from lame to slow to fast, one a “madman.” She takes to naming them. One named for the race photographer Richard Dunwoody, another observer, often snapping pictures of her. Later, she learns he was an Olympic jockey.

“What is it that horses can do for us?” One answer is that “being on a horse pulls you out of yourself and grounds you in the larger land.”

Again, we think we know Why. How remains the magical part of the Shakespearean title.


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Meet Me in Monaco 2

Two old-fashioned romances grace these pages (Cannes and Grasse, France 1955-1956, also London, NYC; epilogue 1982): Do fairy-tales come true?

Would you love to be transported to the days when an iconic actress of the 20th century came to the French Riviera and met her prince? She a “princess from the moment she was born.”

If stepping back into the life of Grace Kelly – once considered “the most beautiful and famous woman in the world,” the “epitome of femininity” – doesn’t send you running for a copy of Meet Me in Monaco, would an equally charming fictional woman who became friends with the actress, Sophie Duval, tempt you more? She a perfumer with an exquisite nose who’ll bring you to another dreamy setting, the flower fields of Provence, perfume capital of the world.

One more hook: you will not find a single word of profanity, befitting these two graceful women. The harshest prose you’ll find is “hell’s bells” and “oopsy-daisy”!

Grace Kelly stirred legions of fans all over the world, then gave up an illustrious American movie career at twenty-six to be crowned Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco when she married Prince Ranier III. Imagine going from Philadelphia to Hollywood to become a Monégasque (citizen) reigning over Monaco, a tiny “principality. Like Vatican City.” The “wedding of the century” took place at a sixteenth-century palace overlooking the Côte d’Azur, watched on TV by 30 million and captured by 2,000 journalists and press photographers! Yes,“it seems everyone loves a fairy-tale romance.”

Even if you know how Grace Kelly’s fairy-tale ended, you’ll still be moved by its heartfelt depiction by two talented historical fiction writers, Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb, who’ve collaborated on another historical romance novel set in France, Last Christmas in Paris; and taken with their lively creation: a Grace Kelly “obsessive,” Angeline West. A brash Philadelphia journalist who devotedly reports on the whereabouts and fashions of her idol. Like her 10.47 diamond engagement ring and the most popular wedding dress in the world on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

If you’re nostalgic for the actress’ “timeless elegance” – be it the “Grace Kelly look” or her graciousness – you’ll devour this book.

Knowing Grace Kelly’s story doesn’t tell us how another old-fashioned romance turns out. That one is between her ten-years-older friend Sophie and James Henderson, a “striking” London-based photographer for the British press assigned to get glamorous shots of the world-famous movie star, or he’ll lose his job. Freeing him wouldn’t be so bad at all if it weren’t for his precious ten-year-old daughter, Emily, back home, whom he adores. No doubt, his ex-wife would use a lack of financial support against him, tightening her stranglehold, another excuse preventing him from seeing her. A war buddy keeps him afloat.

Fascinating, the parallels between a legendary star and an unknown fictional one. Both are shy but learned how to be “confident socialite[s]” when they had to. Obviously, Grace Kelly had far more practice perfecting that, but Sophie is “an intriguing woman,” says James, “who enchanted me more than the Hollywood stars.” The two are natural beauties, grateful for their unlikely friendship.

Meet Me in Monaco opens with this simple yet stunning photograph of Grace Kelly:

Grace Kelly
Metro Goldwyn Mayer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Her love story begins when she arrives in Cannes for the 8th annual film festival. Despite the paparazzi chasing her, she maintained her warmth.

The novel is structured two ways. One alternates between French Sophie and British James, punctuated by that winsome American reporter. Ever wonder how two authors collaborate on one novel? I suspect Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb took on one of the characters, whose narrations switch back and forth sharing their challenges and feelings for each other. Up against Grace Kelly’s tantalizing fairy-tale, and a budding, enduring friendship between two women of grace, this is wholesome escapist fiction with life throwing its share of curve balls and sorrows.

Organized in three parts, named in the language of perfume – Head Notes, Heart Notes, Base Notes – for as much as this is Grace Kelly’s story, it’s Sophie the perfumer’s on a more personal, knowable level. Stardom and royalty are by nature a bit elusive.

Head Notes introduce characters and establish impressions as these are the “notes that greet the nose immediately and evaporate quickly.” When the actress meets the prince there must have been an instant attraction as they wrote to each other for only a few months and then got engaged, surprising the world. Love almost at first sight also happens when James ducks into Sophie’s perfume boutique in Cannes thinking he spotted Grace Kelly doing the same to politely avoid a persistent photographer. He’s immediately drawn to Sophie; touches a nerve in her too. Yet, contrary to the perfume terminology, both sets of romantic impressions do not fade. Rather, they deepen.

Fairy-tales are not without their conflicts. For Sophie, it’s an irritating, condescending, sexist, wealthy boyfriend who thinks he owns her. To some extent he does, having bailed out her beloved father’s perfume legacy, which she regrets, but the business she inherited is constantly on the financial brink.

Sophie, not one to give up easily, is inspired by her father’s training in the “science and magic, art and beauty” of creating scents that hold memories, “remind you of something, or someone.” She’s also passionate and incredibly hard-working in her own right, inventing new “luxury fragrances” with sensuous French names and designing elegant bottles, to rescue her perfume house. Her workshop is in Grasse, where the factory and flowers are located, along with her trouble-maker, alcoholic mother living in their quintessential Provence “stone farmhouse.”

James is also passionate about his craft and art, but not hounding movie stars; he prefers photographing natural landscapes, which he discovers like a treasure trove in romantic France. Yet he keeps having to cut his time short to return to London because of emergencies. Leaving Sophie is maddening. So he and Sophie, like the actress and prince, also correspond through letters, though more sporadically over a much longer duration.

Part Two, Heart Notes –“scents that emerge in the middle of the dispersion process” – are where the two couples reveal their hearts. Except, the royal couple cements their love, while Sophie and James’ relationship is thwarted again and again.

The third part, the Base Notes, “the notes that linger the longest,” let you know whether the novel has a fairy-tale ending. Actually, two. Be prepared to cry and smile.

Along the way, you’ll be met by prose scented with roses, lavender, violet, verbena, vanilla, tuberose; a gentleman’s flirtatious lines straight out of old romantic movies; and Angeline’s colorful columns that increase in frequency, which we welcome like a news junkie.

If, like me, you’re sorry when Meet Me in Monaco ends, you can watch Grace Kelly and Cary Grant star in To Catch a Thief, filmed in the same gorgeous locale, same time period.

To Catch a Thief [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The film’s director, Alfred Hitchcock, Hitch to his friends, was apparently dazzled by Grace Kelly too, making two more films featuring her: Rear Window and Dial M for Murder.

Always a princess, what Grace Kelly did out of appreciation for and friendship with Sophie, which feels authentic to her goodness, may make her one of your favorite actresses too.


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The Last Book Party

Books and beaches, an intoxicating mix (Manhattan to Truro, MA, summer 1987; epilogue 1988): As the title suggests, The Last Book Party has something to do with the literary world. Zooming in on the “trifecta of literary success: talent, confidence, and connections,” this party is intoxicating.

Especially for the protagonist: twenty-five-year old Eve Rosen, aspiring to be taken seriously as a writer. Her writerly angst is relatable to all who yearn to feel valued.

The beaches part is the setting: an idyllic, sand-duned beach town on the tip of the Cape Cod National Seashore, Truro.

Cape Cod National Seashore
By EricM [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Eve is not the only character struggling to be appreciated. But she’s the candid one, out-front about her low self-esteem.

Considering Karen Dukess has been writing speeches on gender equality for the UN Development Programme for the past eight years, the theme of empowering women is at the forefront. Not only for the late eighties timeline of the novel, but right now as the champion US Women’s Soccer Team fights for equal rights, and recently in the Women’s March and Me Too Movement, protesting the most abusive weapon of power and injustice.

So it shouldn’t come as a shocker (though it does) that in an industry filled with women producing books read mostly by women, if you’re an aspiring female writer you’re “eight times more likely to get published” if you submit your manuscript under a male pseudonym.

Getting published is not Eve’s first hurdle. What she needs more than anything else is to get into the creative zone. She hasn’t put pen to paper, typed a single world (this is the pre-Internet era), since her Brown University days, surrounded by so much talent she felt she didn’t have any. Talent being the first leg of that “trifecta,” one of many great one-liners.

As for the second leg – confidence – bookish Eve has lacked that since childhood. Her brother is a math genius; her mother doted on him, ignored and disparaged Eve, saying hurtful things like “if you’re not blessed with genius, what is the point?” Eve’s self-confidence was so deflated she thought: “How could an ordinary life like mine result in a story worth telling?”

Told in flowing prose in an ideal setting for creative, freedom-loving types, this is a delicious summertime read, bringing books, literary characters, and the super-competitive publishing world alive for book-lovers. But, there’s nothing easy or charming about the “summer elite” world Eve throws herself into.

Opening at a Manhattan publishing house, Eve jumps at the chance to leave her lowly editorial secretary job to spend a summer in Truro rising to editorial assistant to one of the “old guard” at the venerated The New Yorker magazine, Henry Grey. He needs a smart, disciplined organizer to help him finish his long-overdue memoirs. She, in turn, hopes greater “proximity to literary success” will rub off on her – the connections leg completing the “trifecta.”

Truro was something Eve had felt confident about. Her parents own a summer home there; she’s spent every summer of her life soothed there by the ocean landscape. But Henry’s Truro is not what she expected. Her conventional family followed the rules. Not exciting enough for Dukess’ “writers, editors, poets, and artists” who follow a different code.

Working alongside Henry seemed like a perfect “confidence booster.” He’d appreciated the respect and attention she gave him back in that publishing house where his memoirs were otherwise neglected (her boss Malcolm focused on up-and-coming talent.) What Eve didn’t know was “the way things appeared – or even the way people said they were – had any relationship to reality.”

What she also didn’t know, but would have been wise to have considered, was how uncomfortable she’d feel working in the same house as Henry’s bohemian wife, Tillie Sanderson. A “serious, obscure poet,” Eve had been unable to decipher her in college. Tillie treats Eve condescendingly, if at all.

Eve doesn’t seem to have any friends, so when she arrives in Truro and meets Tillie and Henry’s son, Franny, a painter who doesn’t read – an “outsider” like Eve in this made-it lit world – she feels welcomed. “Free spirited Franny” is so at ease with himself, so at “ease with which he floated his ideas,” he made her job easy to settle into. Too easy.

Later, Eve reflects on Franny’s charisma: “He made us feel lighter and freer, not like who we were but who we wanted to be.” The us includes Jeremy Grand, whose not so grand after all.

Turns out Jeremy is boss Malcolm’s new protégé, the one who has treated Henry disrespectfully. Jeremy just so happens to be Franny’s old chum from their exclusive New England boarding school days. One of a number of entangled relationships that signal things may not be as delicious as they seem.

Jeremy is the opposite of light-hearted Franny. He’s arduous and arrogant, but he gets along swell with Henry and Tillie, who treat him better than their own son. The literary world is seen as thicker than blood.

The men in the novel have formidable egos and secrets, but it’s Tillie whose the hardest nut to crack. Off-putting Tillie has her own dedicated assistant, Lane, who plays a larger role than we saw, until the surprising ending.

What we’re not surprised about is seeing that the only way Eve is going to pull herself out of her rut is to shake things up, thus shake things out. At twenty-five, this is Eve’s twists-and-turns, coming-of-age transition to adulthood.

Eve is searching for her identity, whereas Henry is grasping to hold onto his. Occasionally he dips his columnist hands in The New Yorker, but his golden years at the magazine are over. Debonair, he’s a nod to the charming gentlemen of the golden era of Hollywood who didn’t air all their emotions. He covers his up with his brand of truth-telling, “fact-heavy” journalism. Eve lets us see underneath.

Henry and Eve may be from different generations and religions – she’s Jewish (so is another character who hides it), Henry’s not, adding another dimension to the outsider theme – but they share a love for the “same novels, the same characters, even the same lines.” Discovering a like-minded reader can connect people in powerful ways.

The novel could be dedicated to all the women who have borne the brunt of not feeling special, who’ve been blinded by their desires to feel special.

Eve’s father is the quietest character, but when his voice pops up its to give wisdom so his daughter might feel happier about herself. “I never wanted a big life,” he tells Eve. Who replies: “You wanted a small life?” No, he says, “I wanted a good life.”

These may sound like simple words, but the underlying premise is not. Especially in an extremely ambitious society willing to leave so many behind.


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In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills 1

So much beauty, so much sorrow (Manhattan to Mubaro, Rwanda 2000/1994; Atlanta 1960s, other intervening years/locales; epilogue 2004): In exquisite, sorrowful prose, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills is wrenching historical fiction that cries out, sings, lingers to express what’s essentially inexpressible. And yet, it has a spiritual soul that uplifts us.

America recently named its newest Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, whose poetry “powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.” The same can be said of Jennifer’s Haupt’s searing lyrical prose, depicting characters and a tortured nation “hoping that mankind’s capacity for love is greater than the history of their deeds.”

How can a work of fiction be so beautiful when it’s drawn from the “unfathomable loss” of horrific crimes against humanity? How can its characters find “peaceful stillness” and purpose amongst so much “secret sadness”? In 1994 Rwanda, nearly 1 million people were slaughtered, raped (“rape is a powerful weapon of war throughout Africa”), and tortured. All in less than 100 days, pitting neighbor against neighbor, the majority group, Hutu, against the minority group Tutsi. How to reconcile the Rwandan genocide in a country famed for its endangered mountain gorillas, who tenderly care for their babies, when its people inhumanly deserted theirs?

“Dedicated to everyone searching for amahoro” – which means peace in one of Rwanda’s national languages, Kinyarwanda – peace and healing are what Haupt’s story is about. Just like Rwanda’s Tutsi president, Paul Kagame, who has been “stirring hope with his talk about reconciliation and forgiveness” since 2000, when the novel opens.

It’s in this sense that Rwanda’s past and present struggles with its brutal history serve as a universal, contemporary tale for people all around the world seeking peace and reconciliation. Seeking answers is also what the journalist-turned-author was doing when she spent a month in Rwanda twelve years after the genocide to “explore the connections between forgiveness and grief.” She returned with the “bones of a novel,” and something much deeper than that.

You don’t have to read Haupt’s illuminating piece in Psychology Today, in which she describes how the two weeks she spent traveling through remote mountain villages at the foothills of the Virunga Mountains in the Rift Valley, to understand how profoundly personal her connection to the genocide was. She’d visited Germany’s Dachau concentration camp years earlier, but it wasn’t until she witnessed up-close the magnitude of the aftermath of Rwanda’s atrocities that her soul was deeply affected. You don’t have to read the article because her soulful prose and characters tell us that.

Peace is what all the good characters want. Henry Shepherd is the one who brings them all together and connects them, yet he’s nowhere to be found except in memories and revelations by the others. His disappearance is a mystery, driving the plot.

In 2000 Manhattan, Henry’s married daughter Rachel, 33, is searching for him, for answers. Why did he abandon her at eight and her mother Merilee? Her mother’s recent death to a long-suffering illness has sparked a renewed, more desperate search than earlier attempts.

Bedridden for four difficult months to prevent a second miscarriage, pregnant Rachel has plenty of time to think about and yearn for her father, so at least one grandparent will get to know her child, whom she’s already named and bonded with. Grief and sorrow lead her to finally open a box of her mother’s things, which include an arresting picture her father, a photographer, took of a young woman inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in the mid-sixties, during the height of the civil rights movement.

That angelic image – “slivers of gold and purple light from a stained glass window falling around her like an exploding meteor” – was captured against the backdrop of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the pulpit. The photo launched her father’s career when it appeared (fictionally) on the cover of Life magazine in April 1968 (see the real one), after the spiritual leader was gunned down. The assassination of a man who led us to the mountaintop shocked the nation, still does. His booming voice wails today, as we’re still caught between dreaming or giving up.

Lillian Carlson is one of the dreamers, inspired by King to “help change the world.” Her name was written on the back of that life-changing photo. Why did Henry keep updating Lillian’s phone number so many years after he shot the image? Thanks to the early days of the Internet, Rachel learns Lillian doesn’t live in Atlanta anymore but in a mountain village in Rwanda, where she farms and mothers orphaned children who lost their families in the genocide.

The children are Lillian’s “saving grace.” Meanwhile she’s saved forty-eight children over decades. In 2000, four call Lillian’s home, the orphanage, their home. Named Kwizera, meaning Hope, Faith, Believe, it sits in the those shadowy “tiered foothills ribboned with banana trees” at the base of mountains that protect awe-inspiring wildlife like those gorillas Henry also photographed. The same gorillas and mountains legendary Dian Fossey of Gorillas in the Midst studied and lived among. Murdered in a cabin in those mountains with the same gruesome genocide weapon, a machete, her death is another piercing, cruel, senseless tragedy.

In addition to the four young orphaned children, there’s an older one, Nadine, with her own horrifying past. Away on a music scholarship at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, she comes home for the holidays when Rachel shows up at Lillian’s doorstep. Rachel assumed the invitation she received, after several back and forth emails explaining she was looking for her father, was written by Lillian, but it wasn’t. Daniel Tucker sent it.

Daniel has a heart of gold. He’s been living on and off with Lillian and the children for the past seven years, when he’s not working at a clinic in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, caring for orphans. By the time he picks Rachel up at the Nairobi airport, over one hundred pages have unfolded about Lillian’s connection to Henry, therefore Rachel’s.

On the journey to Murabo, to Lillian, Rachel observes Daniel has the “hands of a surgeon in a war zone,” cluing us in to his doctoring story and why once he came to Rwanda on a UCLA medical internship volunteering for the Red Cross he never left. Rachel also notices his “eyes are a soft green. Sad.” He, like the others, hides his sadness, “love and loss,” which connect him to one of the four children at the orphanage: delightful seven-year-old Rosie who has her own challenges. Daniel’s deep attachment to Rosie tells us everything about his capacity for love and commitment.

Rachel is greeted by a very cool Lillian, who remains a “Lady of Steel” towards her for much of the novel. Perplexing to Rachel since since gives so much to the others, including the “genocide widows.” The reader will figure out why it’s so hard for Lillian to let her in.

The unfolding of characters’ stories and strength is life-affirming as they bond over shared grief. Their “reverence for the natural beauty that cannot be destroyed,” also offers hope.

What will it take for our country to feel connected to each other? To find purpose like Haupt’s characters find in spite of everything that’s happened? There’s an answer in those shadowy hills.


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