Wednesday, May 15, 2013
2014 Contenders: A Girl Called Problem, by Katie Quirk
The setting is probably the book's biggest strength. It's one that's likely to be unfamiliar to most of its audience, and yet as I was reading, I found myself easily able to visualize the dust, scrub, and oppressive heat, and the skyline dominated by enormous, oddly-shaped boulders. Katie Quirk actually lived in Tanzania for a couple years, and her direct personal experience comes through in her writing.
I found the pacing, however, problematic at best. It's more than 60 pages into this 223-page novel before we're even through the blurb on the back of the jacket, while the ending seemed overly rushed. And while it's refreshing to see a character really and honestly struggling with serious depression (Shida's mother, in this case), I'm unconvinced by the direction the character takes at the end of the book.
I'm also vaguely unsettled by the book's treatment of President Nyerere (who doesn't personally appear in the novel, but is referenced constantly). He's depicted as a sort of folk hero, a Tanzanian George Washington, if you will. While this seems to be consistent with his legacy within the country, Nyerere was, like most historical figures, a lot more complicated than that. Importantly, the relocation of the inhabitants of the outlying settlements to the ujamaa villages eventually stopped being voluntary, and the tactics used in forcibly relocating the population were harsh, abusive, and violent. The practice also had a devastating effect on Tanzania's economy. Admittedly, this happened after the timeframe of A Girl Called Problem, but it's all glossed over by two quick and nonspecific sentences in the Notes from the Author that follow the text. This may say more about me as a reader than about the book itself, but I was uncomfortable with what felt like a bowdlerization of history.
There are very few English-language books for young readers dealing with postcolonial Africa, and so it's nice to see A Girl Called Problem filling that niche. I'm not, however, sold on the execution of the book, and I think its flaws keep it from being Newbery-worthy. Other reviewers, though (notably Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8), have been much more positive about the novel, and so I may have another look at it before the year is over.
Published in April by Eerdmans