This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.
This story is set in Kenya, a nation of almost fifty million people, mostly Bantu and Nilote, but an assortment of many others, too. It sits on the east coast, right below the spike that's known as the Horn of Africa. Kenya is home to Turkana Boy, a 1.6-million-year-old Homo erectus fossil. It's also home to the third largest AIDS population in Africa, but it's one that of late, has seen some success in battling this deadly infection.
This was a depressing story about the appalling AIDS epidemic in Africa which hosts about 15% of the world's population, but is home to almost seventy percent of the world's AIDs victims. This story makes that cold statistic real in both mind and heart as it tells of the life of young Auma, a child who was not thought likely to survive birth, but who grew smart, strong, and ambitious. She wants to be a doctor, and sees her performance at track as a ticket to getting the education she needs to follow her dream, but the powers that be want to see her neutered by being married off at fifteen.
We learn of her harsh schooling, and her living conditions which are primitive to us, but sadly all-too-normal for too many African children. Auma never loses her way, though. She is determined and steadfast, even when AIDS, which the locals euphemistically and with rather gallows humor label 'Slim', comes calling at her door, first taking her father and then seeing her mother fall ill.
It's good that Auma has the stamina of an athlete, because this isn't a US TV show where everything is wonderfully wrapped-up in thirty minutes, and all familial spats are resolved with joyful outcomes. This is Africa - a terra incognita to us spoiled-rotten westerners, and Auma's story is about the real world, not about the cozy fictional one with which we proudly cosset our so-called civilized selves.
I noted that some other reviewers have set this story in the 1980's, but (and I admit I may have missed it) I got no sense of when this took place at all from the actual writing. There are no temporal markers in the small village of Koromo: neither cell-phone nor landline, neither flat-screen TV nor any sort of TV or radio. There's no electricity, no running water, unless you count running down to the river and then boiling the water you bring back. There is no sense of an outside world because the world was the village to these people and very few left it.
They did talk about AIDS and HIV though, and those names did not come into use until the mid-1980s, and would doubtlessly not have been in common use in Africa until later, despite HIV first arising there. So saying this was set in the 1980's seemed to place it a bit too early to me, especially since there are, in Auma's story, medications available even in Kenya, to help combat the effects of AIDs.
The amazingly-named author, who is an associate professor at Shippensburg University (she has a doctorate from Tennessee State) grew up in Kenya, and she talks of paying for school education. Since 2003, education in public schools in Kenya has been free and compulsory, so it would seem that the story takes place sometime in the nineties at a rough guess, but in the end it really doesn't matter, because the problem is the same regardless of when the story actually takes place.
In terms of the presentation, this was another ARC provided via Amazon's crappy Kindle format, which is probably the worst medium (aside from mailing a hand-written copy! LOL!) for presenting a review copy, I urge publishers not to use Kindle format, but instead to go with PDF or with Nook format, both of which are significantly superior to Amazon's sub-standard system.
Overall, the layout of the book was good, but true to form, Kindle screwed-up the image which was used as a section divider in this novel. Instead of it being a small rectangle between sections of text, it occupied a whole screen on my phone. It did better in the Kindle app on an iPad, although why there is a difference between the two, I cannot say - except that they are both using the same crappy Kindle app!
The other instance of Kindle's poor formatting was where I read this: "Good morning, Class Seven," Mrs. Okumu greeted us." The children responded, "Good morning," but the one 'Good morning' was superimposed atop the other instead of being on the next line! I've never seen that before. I have no idea how it even happened. But like I said, these are not problems with the writing or the plot, so they weren't an insurmountable chore to deal with (and certainly not in comparison with what Auma had to go through!). It was a reminder of how Kindle simply isn't up to handling graphics of any kind and in some instances, plain text! That's not on the writer or on the story though, so it doesn't affect this review.
The only writing issue I encountered was a trivial one, but it did stand out to me. At one point I read "My legs burst forward, dashing to save Mama from Akuku. I sped ahead, my heels kicking up fresh dirt." The problem with this is that your heels don't touch the dirt when you're sprinting! Like I said, trivial, but everything is worth expending some thought on when you're a writer. Overall though, this is a worthy read and (I have to say this!) I urge everyone to read it and weep.
I liked this story and recommend it as essential reading. We can't forget about this. We can't forget that while we wallow in pampered luxury, there are others - far too many others - who struggle every day. Even without the disease, Auma's existence was precarious and heart-breaking. The disease was like a bully playing cruelly on an already deprived life, yet Auma never broke under the weight of this brutal burden she carried. This story is well-worth reading and ought to be required reading.