Wednesday, May 15, 2013

2014 Contenders: A Girl Called Problem, by Katie Quirk

Colonialism was a pretty bad deal for the entire continent of Africa, but all of the problems didn't end when the European powers gave up direct control of their former colonies. A Girl Called Problem is set in Tanzania in the 1960s, as the new nation was trying to find its feet. Shida, the 13-year-old eponymous protagonist of the book (her name is the word for "problem" in Swahili), is in a similar position. Her entire settlement has relocated to one of President Julius Nyerere's communal ujamaa villages, and while this gives Shida the opportunity to attend school and work as an apprentice nurse, it also stirs discontent among the community. Unfortunate events pile up on each other until the entire future of Shida's family and friends hangs in the balance.

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


  1. I can see your point about the pacing, but I disagree about Nyerere. The book really does capture a particular point in time when there was such optimism and excitement about his ideas. That things didn't turn out so well later on --- it doesn't seem to me to have to bring that out in the book. I mean, you could argue the same thing with Williams-Garcia's One Crazy Summer and the Black Panthers, couldn't you? Or Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's No Crystal Stairs and Malcolm X.

    1. That's a good question, and Rachael and I ended up discussing it for half an hour or so after dinner last night.

      As far as the novel itself, I think you (and Rachael) may have convinced me. I don't know how happy I'd actually be if the book stepped outside of its timeframe to comment on other things.

      I think my biggest remaining issue is that the "Notes from the Author" section contains two long paragraphs under "How is President Nyerere Remembered?", as well as another one under "Did Nija Panda survive as an ujamaa village?" that seem to gloss over any negatives surrounding Nyerere and his questionable human rights record. I always consider any front and back matter created by the author as an integral part of the text, and, in my opinion, the back matter distorts the historical record enough to make the book fail the Presentation of Information bullet point in the Newbery criteria.