Chanda's Secrets

Chanda's Secrets

4.3 29
by Allan Stratton

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Sixteen-year-old Chanda fights to rescue the people she loves in sub-Saharan Africa.See more details below

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Sixteen-year-old Chanda fights to rescue the people she loves in sub-Saharan Africa.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature
When Chandra's little sister Sara dies, it prompts Chandra to discover a horrible truth that must be kept secret: members of her family have AIDS. In the town where she lives in Africa, no one talks about AIDS. All the deaths in the community are instead attributed to cancer, tuberculosis, even hunting accidents. Everyone is affected by this epidemic, however: from Chandra's friend Esther, who has turned to prostitution to support herself and her siblings after her parents die, to Chandra herself, who was molested by one of her stepfathers years ago. When Chandra's mother disappears, leaving Chandra to care for her siblings with the help of a nosy neighbor, Chandra forces the community to confront the reality of the disease. While Stratton's depiction of AIDS in Africa is gripping and heartbreaking, the ending seems forced, overly happy, and, based on the rest of the book, unrealistic. Nevertheless, this book should become required reading in schools to educate children about the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Clark's line drawings at each chapter are sparse yet give a sense of a world that, otherwise, might be difficult for the average American child to comprehend. 2004, Annick Press, Ages 12 up.
—Amie Rose Rotruck
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-Chanda, 16, remembers the good times, when she lived with both parents on a cattle post in sub-Saharan Africa and even later on when her family moved to Bonang. Her family's troubles began after her father was killed in the diamond mines. Her first stepfather abused her; the second died of a stroke; the third is a drunken philanderer. Although Chanda lives in a world in which illness and death have become commonplace, it is not one in which AIDS can be mentioned. The horror and desperation of families facing this disease is brought home when her latest stepfather's sister dumps the dying man in front of their shantytown house. Before Chanda can get help from the hospital caseworker, he disappears and the wagon that brought him is burned. Her mother leaves to visit her family on the cattle post and Chanda is forced to give up her dream of further education to care for her younger sister and brother. Slowly she comes to realize that her mother has AIDS, and that she might be infected herself. But Chanda's education serves her well as she faces the disease head-on. In a sad but satisfying ending, she rescues her mother so that she can die at home and she and her siblings get themselves tested. Smart and determined, Chanda is a character whom readers come to care for and believe in, in spite of her almost impossible situation. The details of sub-Saharan African life are convincing and smoothly woven into this moving story of poverty and courage, but the real insight for readers will be the appalling treatment of the AIDS victims. Strong language and frank description are appropriate to the subject matter.-Kathleen Isaacs, Edmund Burke School, Washington, DC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The subject of AIDS in contemporary Africa receives powerful-though apolitical-treatment. When 16-year-old Chanda's baby sister dies, the middle siblings are told that she went "on a trip." Lies and secrets obscure death and suppress every hint of AIDS, which is running rampant through this small city. AIDS lurks everywhere, but so do the shame and social death of acknowledging it. Chanda's Mama is slowly weakening and Chanda's best friend has turned to prostitution, making the spread of HIV ever harder to ignore. Chanda's slow rebellion against all the secrecy comes at a dear price, but the end is not without hope, at least for her and the young siblings who've become her "babies." Stratton pulls his punches by setting this in a fictional country and failing to ever mention any governmental (or corporate/pharmaceutical) culpability. Still, the strong, respectful writing makes this crucial and broadly relevant story unfailingly human. (author's note) (Fiction. YA)
Resource Links
Brings the despair, overwhelming poverty and the impact of AIDS/HIV to life... strength of human character when faced with adversity.
— Anne Hatcher
Library Media Connection
It brings to life Africa's problem with AIDS and poverty -- a story the world needs to know.
— Barbara Jo McKee
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
A searing book on an important subject... there is not a maudlin moment in the novel, just genuine grief and understanding as the epidemic assumes some of its many human faces.
CM Magazine
By focusing on Chanda's personal struggle with what Stephen Lewis, UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, calls a "sinister, invisible poison," the novel demonstrates that love, loyalty, family, and friendship can flourish in an open and truthful atmosphere once the destructive influence of secrecy has been conquered. With well-paced, robust prose and well-cadenced dialogue, the novel provides valuable insights into the role religion, superstition, culture and customs play in the daily lives of Bonangians. Chanda's struggles put a face to the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS and provide a gripping and heart-wrenching reading experience designed for mature readers. Younger readers may need some preparation to deal with the sensitive and complex topics the novel addresses. Rape, prostitution, adultery, sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS and other difficult subjects are presented in a matter-of-fact fashion and lend credibility and honesty to this discussion of a modern epidemic.
[Starred review:] The tense story and the realistic characters... will keep kids reading and break the silence about the tragedy.
— Hazel Rochman
2010 Cannes International Film Festival
Film adaptation, winner of the Prix François Chalais
Canadian Children's Book Centre
Starred Selection 2009
Resource Links - Anne Hatcher
Stratton brings the despair, overwhelming poverty and the impact of AIDS/HIV to life while at the same time depicting the strength of human character when faced with adversity.
Library Media Connection - Barbara Jo McKee
It brings to life Africa's problem with AIDS and poverty -- a story the world needs to know.
Booklist - Hazel Rochman
[Starred review:] neither sentimental nor graphics close the personal struggle... The message about overcoming ignorance and shame and confronting the facts is ever-present, but the tense story and the realistic characters -- caring, mean, funny, angry, kind and cruel -- will keep kids reading and break the silence about the tragedy.

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Product Details

Firefly Books, Limited
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I'm alone in the office of Bateman's Eternal Light Funeral Services. It's early Monday morning and Mr. Bateman is busy with a new shipment of coffins.

"I'll get to you as soon as I can," he told me. "Meanwhile, you can go into my office and look at my fish. They're in an aquarium on the far wall. If you get bored, there're magazines on the coffee table. By the way, I'm sorry about your sister."

I don't want to look at Mr. Bateman's fish. And I certainly don't want to read. I just want to get this meeting over with before I cry and make a fool of myself.

Mr. Bateman's office is huge. It's also dark. The blinds are closed and half the fluorescent lights are burned out. Aside from the lamp on his desk, most of the light in the room comes from the aquarium. That's fine, I guess. The darkness hides the junk piled in the corners: hammers, boards, paint cans, saws, boxes of nails, and a stepladder. Mr. Bateman renovated the place six months ago, but he hasn't tidied up yet.

Before the renovations, Bateman's Eternal Light didn't do funerals. It was a building supply center. That's why it's located between a lumber yard and a place that rents cement mixers. Mr. Bateman opened it when he arrived from England eight years ago. It was always busy, but these days, despite the building boom, there's more money in death than construction.

The day of the grand reopening, Mr. Bateman announced plans to have a chain of Eternal Lights across the country within two years. When reporters asked if he had any training in embalming, he said no, but he was completing a correspondence course from some college in the States. Healso promised to hire the best hair stylists in town, and to offer discount rates. "No matter how poor, there's a place for everyone at Bateman's."

That's why I'm here.

When Mr. Bateman finally comes in, I don't notice. Somehow I've ended up on a folding chair in front of his aquarium staring at an angelfish. It's staring back. I wonder what it's thinking. I wonder if it knows it's trapped in a tank for the rest of its life. Or maybe it's happy swimming back and forth between the plastic grasses, nibbling algae from the turquoise pebbles and investigating the little pirate chest with the lid that blows air bubbles. I've loved angelfish ever since I saw pictures of them in a collection of National Geographics some missionaries donated to my school.

"So sorry to have kept you," Mr. Bateman says.

I leap to my feet.

"Sit, sit. Please," he smiles.

We shake hands and I sink back into the folding chair. He sits opposite me in an old leather recliner. There's a tear on the armrest with gray stuffing poking out. Mr. Bateman picks at it.

"Are we expecting your papa?"

"No," I say. "My step-papa's working." That's a lie. My step-papa is dead drunk at the neighborhood shebeen.

"Are we waiting for your mama, then?"

"She can't come either. She's very sick." This part is almost true. Mama is curled up on the floor, rocking my sister. When I told her we had to find a mortuary she just kept rocking. "You go," she whispered. "You're sixteen. I know you'll do what needs doing. I have to stay with my Sara."

Mr. Bateman clears his throat. "Might there be an auntie coming, then? Or an uncle?"


"Ah." His mouth bobs open and shut. His skin is pale and scaly. He reminds me of one of his fish. "Ah," he says again. "So you've been sent to make the arrangements by yourself."

I nod and stare at the small cigarette burn on his lapel. "I'm sixteen.

"Ah." He pauses. "How old was your sister?"

"Sara's one and a half," I say. "Was one and a half."

"One and a half. My, my." Mr. Bateman clucks his tongue. "It's always a shock when they're infants."

A shock? Sara was alive two hours ago. She was cranky all night because of her rash. Mama rocked her through dawn, till she stopped whining. At first we thought she'd just fallen asleep. (God, please forgive me for being angry with her last night. I didn't mean what I prayed. Please let this not be my fault.)

I lower my eyes.

Mr. Bateman breaks the silence. "You'll be glad you chose Eternal Light," he confides. "It's more than a mortuary. We provide embalming, a hearse, two wreaths, a small chapel, funeral programs and a mention in the local paper."

I guess this is supposed to make me feel better. It doesn't. "How much will it cost?" I ask.

"That depends," Mr. Bateman says. "What sort of funeral would you like?"

My hands flop on my lap. "Something simple, I guess."

"A good choice."

I nod. It's obvious I can't pay much. I got my dress from a ragpicker at the bazaar and I'm dusty and sweaty from my bicycle ride here.

"Would you like to start by selecting a coffin?" he asks.

"Yes, please."

Mr. Bateman leads me to his showroom. The most expensive coffins are up front, but he doesn't want to insult me by whisking me to the back. Instead I get the full tour. "We stock a full line of products," he says. "Models come in pine and mahogany, and can be fitted with a variety of brass handles and bars. We have beveled edges, or plain. As for the linings, we offer silk, satin, and polyester in a range of colors. Plain pillowcases for the head rest are standard, but we can sew on a lace ribbon for free."

The more Mr. Bateman talks, the more excited he gets, giving each model a little rub with his handkerchief. He explains the difference between coffins and caskets: "Coffins have flat lids. Caskets have round lids." Not that it makes a difference. In the end, they're all boxes.

I'm a little frightened. We're getting to the back of the show- room and the price tags on the coffins are still an average year's wages. My step-papa does odd jobs, my mama keeps a few chickens and a vegetable garden, my sister is five and a half, my brother is four, and I'm in high school. Where is the money going to come from?

Mr. Bateman sees the look on my face. "For children's funerals, we have a less costly alternative," he says. He leads me behind a curtain into a back room and flicks on a light bulb. All around me, stacked to the ceiling, are tiny whitewashed coffins, dusted with yellow, pink, and blue spray paint.

Mr. Bateman opens one up. It's made of pressboards, held together with a handful of finishing nails. The lining is a plastic sheet, stapled in place. Tin handles are glued to the outside; if you tried to use them, they'd fall off.

I look away.

Mr. Bateman tries to comfort. "We wrap the children in a beautiful white shroud. Then we fluff the material over the sides of the box. All you see is the little face. Sara will look lovely."

I'm numb as he takes me back to the morgue, where she'll be kept till she's ready. He points at a row of oversized filing cabinets. "They're clean as a whistle, and fully refrigerated," he assures me. "Sara will have her own compartment, unless other children are brought in, of course, in which case she'll have to share." We return to the office and Mr. Bateman hands me a contract. "If you've got the money handy, I'll drive by for the body at one. Sara will be ready for pickup Wednesday afternoon. I'll schedule the burial for Thursday morning."

I swallow hard. "Mama would like to hold off until the weekend. Our relatives need time to come in from the country."

"I'm afraid there's no discount on weekends," Mr. Bateman says, lighting a cigarette.

"Then maybe next Monday, a week today?"

"Not possible. I'll be up to my ears in new customers. I'm sorry. There're so many deaths these days. It's not me. It's the market."

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