Boarding school is one of my favorite YA settings, but never before have I seen one set in Swaziland. That’s exactly where award-winning writer-director Malla Nunn’s When the Ground is Hard takes place, and it promises to be a wrenching eye-opener of epic proportions. It follows the unexpected friendship between Adele, a popular girl at Keziah Christian Academy who has just been dumped by her best friend, and Lottie, a defiant and rebellious school pariah who’s the last girl Adele thought she would ever hang out with. But, as the best friendships do, their bond forms over a book, specifically a copy of Jane Eyre that brings them together and turns them into each other’s biggest defenders in a school where prejudice runs rampant. When a boy disappears from campus, the two must team up to figure out what happened, cementing their friendship for good.
Today we’ve got not only the book’s beautiful cover (designed by Kristin Boyle), but also an excerpt of the first chapter, so you can get a sneak peek well before the book releases from Penguin on June 4!
It’s Thursday night, so we walk down Live Long Street to the public telephone booth at the intersection of three footpaths called Left Path, Right Path, and Center Path. My flashlight beam bounces the length of the dirt road and picks out uneven ground and potholes, of which there are many. Mrs. Button, who lives in the pink house behind the mechanic’s workshop, says that all streets should be paved like they are in England, but we’re not in England—we are in the British protectorate of Swaziland, fenced in on all sides by Mozambique and the Republic of South Africa—so what does she know?
“Pick up the pace,” Mother says in a fierce whisper. “We can’t be late.”
We hurry past cement-brick houses with cracks of light spilling from under locked front doors. Dogs bark in fenced yards. A curtain twitches, and a face peers at us through a space the width of a hand. The face belongs to Miriam Dube, the church minister’s wife, who makes it her duty to spy on our weekly pilgrimage to the public phone box. It’s dark, but I imagine that Mrs. Dube’s expression is smug disapproval.
Mother holds her head high, like she is balancing the weight of an iron crown or suffering a garland of thorns. The neighbors are jealous, she says. Jealous gossips who frown on her high heels and her dresses straight from Johannesburg that show too much leg. They know we have carpet in the living room, she says. We also have Christmas bicycles with flashing chrome, in the backyard, and new Bata school shoes that still smell of the factory, under our beds.
They have concrete floors, and if they do have rugs, they are sure to be ugly when compared to the tufted field of purple flowers that blossom under our feet when we walk from the settee to the kitchen. That’s why they hate us. That’s why they don’t stop to give us a lift when they see us walking at the side of the road, weighed down with shopping bags. The Manzini market is three miles from our house, Mother says. Three miles across dry fields pocked with snake and scorpion holes. A dangerous walk. A Christian would see our suffering and pick us up. But our neighbors—who call themselves Christians and stuff the church pews every Sunday—they drive by and leave us in their dust.
The phone booth appears in my flashlight beam: a rectangle of silver metal cemented into the red earth. Right Path, Left Path, and Center Path split off and disappear into vacant land covered in weeds. Bored children and drunks have left their initials and their boot prints on the glass walls, but, by some miracle, the interior light still gives off a dim glow, which attracts a circling cloud of white moths.
Mother feeds four silver coins into the change slot and dials a number. Her hands shake, and her breath comes short from walking the uneven road in high heels. As a rule, she never leaves our house in flat sandals or, Lord save us, the loose cotton slippers worn by women who value comfort over fashion sense. The coins drop, and she shapes her mouth into a smile.
“It’s me,” she says in a throaty voice that she reserves for the telephone.
The voice on the other end says something that makes her laugh, and she flashes me a triumphant glare. You see? her look says. I call every Thursday night to talk about what’s happening with you, me, and your brother, Rian, and he answers just like that . . .
Mother wants me to know that, no matter what names the church ladies call her, her relationship with him is special. She has a good man she can rely on, and how many “loose women” and “tramps” can say the same thing? Zero. That’s how many. Mother, I think, wants me to be proud of our weekly walk to the phone box.
I pick a twitching moth from my hair and blow it into the air. Its wings leave a fine white powder on my fingertips, and I brush it off onto the front of my skirt while Mother talks low and soft into the receiver.
“Of course. Adele is right here.” She snaps her fingers to get my attention. “She’s dying to talk to you.” I take the receiver from her and say, “Hello. . . . I’m fine. How are you?”
The voice tells me that he’s tired but it’s good to hear my voice and Mother’s. Did the rest of the Christmas holidays go well? Am I ready for my second-to-last year of high school, and, good heavens, where does the time go? He pays the fees, so I tell him, “Yes, yes, I can’t wait to go back to Keziah Christian Academy.” It’s January 21, three days before the term starts, but my bags are already packed. “It will be good to see my friends again.” Phone time is precious. I can’t waste a second of it by mentioning the bad food or the sharp edge of Mr. Newman’s ruler that raps against my knuckles when I get a wrong answer or look at the mountains through the classroom window for too long. Mother says: Have some pride, girl. Nobody wants to hear your problems. Nurse your sorrows in private like the rest of us. She double-snaps her fingers to let me know that my time is up.
“See you soon, I hope.” I surrender the receiver and step away to give her privacy. A cloud of moths beats a white circle around the phone box while others lie on the ground with broken wings.
I pull a strand of wild grass from the side of the road and chew the sweet end while Mother whispers promises into the telephone. Her right hip and shoulder press against the glass, and in that moment, surrounded by fields of rustling weeds and the low night sky, she seems small and completely alone. Just her and the moths dancing together in the pale light while darkness swallows everything around them.
Minutes pass. She hangs up and strides across the pockmarked road with her high heels clicking and her hips swinging to a tune that only she can hear. A loose curl bounces against her flushed right cheek, the way it always does after she’s talked to him on the telephone. I can’t tell if winding a strand of hair around her index finger is a nervous habit or a soothing motion. She throws her arms wide and hugs me tight. Air escapes my lungs with a hard whoosh.
“He’s coming,” she whispers into my ear.
“When?” I want dates and times. In one way or another, he is always on his way. He tells us he’ll be in Mkuze, only five hours’ drive from us. Or he has a meeting coming up in Golela, and it’s a quick hop across the border from South Africa to us. Next, he’s visiting Kruger Park with the other children and he might drop by for a few hours. Maybe he’ll show up. Maybe he’ll come this weekend . . .
“Saturday.” Mother is giddy with joy. “He wants to see you before you leave for boarding school. And he wants to see Rian. You know how he worries about Rian’s asthma. Missing school. He cares about us, my girl, but you know how things are.”
Yes, I know “how things are.” I am an expert in the unwritten rules that govern our family and the boundaries that can’t be crossed or even mentioned out loud. I was born knowing. Mother reminds me of “how things are,” on a regular basis so I’ll remember that certain things in life can’t be changed.
“Come.” Mother grabs my arm, and we retrace our footsteps back in the direction of home. The vacant land around us rustles with sounds: secretive porcupines digging up roots, the soft pads of a house cat hunting small creatures through the bush, and a nightjar’s escalating song. Mother hums “Oh Happy Day” under her breath. She used to sing in the church choir, and she has a lovely voice even now.
Car headlights swing off Center Path, and two bright beams illuminate the craggy length of Live Long Street. We automatically jump off the road and into the tall grass that grows thick along the edge. A truck speeds past, and we tuck our faces into the crooks of our arms to avoid being choked by dust. The white Ford pickup truck with a dented front fender belongs to Fergus Meadows, who lives in the house opposite ours and inherited his father’s lumberyard five years ago.
A stone pings my leg, and I see that I’m cut. I wipe the blood away with white powdered fingers and step back onto the street. This is where Mother usually says, Hooligan! His father would die twice if he knew how spoiled that boy has turned out. He saw us walking in the dark. Don’t you think he didn’t. Two females. Alone. Yet he doesn’t even slow down. Imagine!
But tonight is different. Instead of criticizing Fergus Meadows’s manners, she flicks dust from her skirt and tucks her arm through mine. She hums and smiles at the half-moon in the sky. The neighborhood gossip and the sly glances thrown at her in the aisles of the new hypermarket on Louw Street can’t touch her. She is bulletproof. She is armored by a simple fact:
He is coming.
When the Ground is Hard is available for preorder and releases on June 4, 2019.