From The Good Braider:
My mother calls me by two names, Viola, for Jesus,
and Keji, for firstborn girl.
"All men in Sudan will want to marry you," she used to say.
"You are a girl from Juba."
After suffering through—and surviving—years of war in Sudan, the family faces one danger too many, and Viola's mother makes a huge decision: to attempt the journey to the United States. And so that's what they do.
Which makes it sound quick and easy.
It's not. It's a long journey from Juba, Sudan, to Cairo, Egypt, and once in Egypt, they have to eke out an existence while hoping, every single day, that it will be the day when they get the blue cards that make them eligible for resettlement.
They wait over a year.
Once they're in the United States—in Portland, Maine!—while life is significantly less immediately dangerous, Viola's journey continues as she struggles to reconcile two very different cultures, to integrate into (and excel in) public school, as well as deal with the emotional repercussions of her entire journey.
First of all: I LOVE THIS COVER. It's just so pretty. Not just because of those gorgeous braids (I typed 'brains', like, four times just now), but because of the swoop of the model's neck, and because of the wide blue sky. It's clean and clear and makes nice of negative space, as befits the cover of a verse novel. Wow, I sound like a mega-dork. But it's true, so I'll leave it in.
As I just said, The Good Braider is a verse novel. Like many verse novels—AND OH MY GOD, PLEASE DON'T THINK I'M (MORE OF) AN IDIOT OR WHATEVER FOR SAYING THIS—it reads more like extremely spare prose with lots of line breaks than it does, you know, poetry. NOT THAT THERE'S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT. (Or is free verse just supposed to read like that? You'd think that with my background—I was all over the poetry classes in college—that I'd know that, but maybe too much Hart of Dixie* truly has made my brain smaller. Do I just not GET IT? Possibly. Anyway.)
It's got a fantastic sense of place and Farish conveys long periods of time spent waiting without ever slowing the pace of the story, both of which are quite impressive considering how few words she uses. The contrast between cultures is striking, and it's especially nice that the book portrays Viola attempting to understand and fit into American (and even more specifically, Maine**) culture, but never uses the somewhat-tired "I renounce my former culture/this new culture is so horrible and wrong; oh wait, now I'm proud to be a part of both cultures" storyline. She's drawn towards both worlds, but she just... keeps on keeping on, and eventually finds her place in both. That isn't to minimize what she experiences AT ALL. It's just that, especially in comparison with, say, the heroine in the last book I wrote about, she comes off as pretty damn even-keeled.
Oddly enough, it's not a book that I emotionally connected with***, though the story has stuck with me. As I read, it was clear to me that the author had, at the very least done some serious research, a vague feeling that was supported when I read the Acknowledgements: in which she thanks specific people from the Sudanese community of Portland. Because, despite my lack of emotional resonance, it was a book that felt true.
TRIGGER WARNING/SPOILER: Viola personally endures some particularly ugly (sexual) brutality before she leaves Sudan, and while much of it takes place off-screen, it's still... ag. Personally, I found the passages about her emotionally processing/coming to terms with that part of her history much more painful than reading about the actual assault/s, but the experience will be different for different readers.
*GARY COLE JUST SHOWED UP. GARY FREAKING COLE. I love him.
**She hits much of it dead-on. I may have squealed at the mention of Barber Foods.
***Though it's very possible that I held myself back—I have a tendency to do that with war stories, purely out of self-preservation.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season.