Thirty Girls by Susan Minot

Thirty GirlsOn Oct. 10, 1996, 139 girls from St. Mary’s College in Aboke, Uganda, were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Like thousands of other children who were taken during the LRA’s more than 20-year dominance over northern Uganda and southern Sudan, the girls suffered unimaginable horrors, serving as sex slaves and baby machines for rebel militants conducting murderous raids throughout the region.

Although the release of 109 St. Mary’s girls was successfully negotiated, 30 of the strongest and prettiest remained with the LRA, some held in captivity for as long as 13 years. It is on this fragment of history – the kidnapping as well as the valiant rescue efforts made by family members, journalists and NGOs – that Susan Minot has based her latest novel, Thirty Girls.

In alternating chapters and in especially raw interludes titled “The You File,” the gritty details of what the girls endured, including one especially brutal scene where they are made to beat one of their own to death with sticks, are revealed through the recollections of Esther Akello, a brittle and shell-shocked 16-year-old who escaped from the LRA a year and a half after she was abducted.

Using candid, staccato sentences that ricochet off the page like bullets on metal, the full array of Esther’s emotions about what happened to her – anger, self-loathing, fear, remorse – is respectfully portrayed and duly felt. “There is a person inside me who has been very bad and does not deserve a chance at life,” Esther says. “She has done things no good person would do. … [I]t would be better if I were dead.”

Unfortunately for us, Esther’s is not the whole story. She shares the limelight with 39-year-old Jane, a green-behind-the-ears journalist who has flown to Africa to report on the St. Mary’s girls’ disappearance in an effort to raise global awareness and bring them home. Accompanied by Lana, Harry, Don and Pierre, a motley crew of privileged, appropriately chiseled expats the likes of whom have surely moonlighted in a Hemingway novel, Jane travels from Kenya to northern Uganda to witness where the kidnappings took place, meet with the families affected and record the stories of the children who escaped.

At least this appears to be what Jane thought she was doing. Before long, it becomes clear that Jane’s real motivation for crossing continents was to put distance between herself and a disappointing past involving a deceased ex-husband with a drug problem in favor of finding out who she is and what truly matters in life – which, in Jane’s case, is love. Or lack thereof.

Minot is an old pro when it comes to writing about women’s inner turmoil, especially in the interest of love and sex. In her best-selling Evening (1998), a thrice-married mother dying of cancer reflects on her choices, including those she made during a love affair four decades prior. In Rapture (2002), a woman agonizes over a semi-reignited relationship with an ex-lover during an evening involving unwillingly complicated oral sex. But does Jane’s version of navel-gazing fit when juxtaposed with a story like Esther’s? Not exactly.

True to life or not, Jane’s book-length preoccupation with Harry, a gorgeous and self-assured but predictably aloof paraglider who is along for the expedition, seems out of place. While a healthy dose of insecurity or timidity in a new relationship never hurt anyone, Jane’s single-minded fixation on whether Harry likes her – especially during their sex scenes or, even worse, when she’s out in the field reporting – often reads like an exasperating dinner with a friend nattering on about an old beau.

“She observed herself … In stunning relief rose the shadows, as if lit by the sun off Lake Victoria, of the contours of all her unappealing attributes: impatience, dissatisfaction, age … What she saw was a person with no real home, a woman without a child, an idiot girl whose mind … was nevertheless still preoccupied with a man fifteen years younger.” Doomed relationship or not, in a novel involving much more pressing matters, it’s hard not to think: enough already.

These trifles aside, Minot’s close reportage of the St. Mary’s incident (what happens in the book is similar to what took place in 1996) harks back to an atrocious moment in history. As we watch Jane et al. grow increasingly unsettled by the harsh truths they uncover during their mission up north – “looking pale and shattered,” bickering with each other, and obsessing over their own problems – we are reminded of just how messy dealing with others’ tragedies can be. For as Jane asks herself, “Why did this happen to them and not me?”

So, too, Minot jabs at the heart of what it means to be white and privileged in a world riddled with racial prejudice and class inequality. Jane’s gift of a worthless bracelet to a destitute mother whose husband was killed by the LRA or Don’s donation of $5,000 to the rehabilitation center where the children are sent after they’ve escaped may seem like hackneyed gestures until we remember how common it is to throw money at the world’s problems from a distance. And how easy it is to emotionally sidestep misfortune that isn’t personal.

“When would they leave her? When would she stop thinking of them?” Jane asks herself toward the end of Thirty Girls. If we know Jane, it’s probably sooner than later. But in Minot’s case, she has given voice not just to the four girls who were killed and the 26 who eventually found freedom, but also to the more than 30,000 children who were abducted by the LRA. For that, she can be applauded.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (March 14, 2014)

%d bloggers like this: