The Atlas of Forgotten Places: A Novel

The Atlas of Forgotten Places: A Novel

by Jenny D. Williams


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From author Jenny D. Williams, a fresh new voice in fiction, comes her stunning debut novel The Atlas of Forgotten Places. Set against the backdrop of ivory smuggling and civil war in Uganda and the DR Congo, it is a story of two women from different worlds, bound in a quest to save their loved ones.

“Every page of The Atlas of Forgotten Places resonates with an intimate knowledge of life in ‘Africa’...the impossible beauty of the landscape, the depths of sorrows carried by ordinary citizens, the miraculous melding of violence and personal grace. Jenny D. Williams has written that rare thing: a page-turning adventure story that simultaneously goes deep into the heart of what it is to be human and present.” —Malla Nunn, award-winning screenwriter and author of A Beautiful Place to Die, Silent Valley, and Present Darkness

After a long career as an aid worker, Sabine Hardt has retreated to her native Germany for a quieter life. But when her American niece Lily disappears while volunteering in Uganda, Sabine must return to places and memories she once thought buried in order to find her.

In Uganda, Rose Akulu — haunted by a troubled past with the Lord’s Resistance Army and a family torn apart by war — is distressed when her lover Ocen vanishes without a trace. Side by side, Sabine and Rose must unravel the tangled threads that tie Lily and Ocen’s lives together—ultimately discovering that the truth of their loved ones’ disappearance is inescapably entwined to the secrets the two women carry.

The Atlas of Forgotten Places is a book that delves deep into the heart of compassion and redemption. It spans geographies and generations to lay bare the stories that connect us all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250122933
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/11/2017
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

JENNY D. WILLIAMS has lived in the U.S., Uganda, and Germany. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and a BA from UC Berkeley. Her award-winning fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and illustrations have been published in The Sun Magazine, Vela, and Ethical Traveler, as well as several anthologies. A former Teachers & Writers Collaborative fellow and recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant for emerging writers, she currently lives in Seattle with her husband and dog. The Atlas of Forgotten Places is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt



December 2, 2008
She leaves in the darkness before dawn, when she knows the guard, Kenneth, will be asleep, and before the rooster tends to crow. She doesn't need the alarm to wake her; she's hardly closed her eyes all night. She untucks the mosquito net and climbs out of bed, and in the ambient greenish glow of her lit cell phone display, she dresses in the jeans and T-shirt she laid out last night, cinching her money belt around her waist, her limbs tense and tingling.

Everything in the hut is put away. A dozen books lean against one another on the shelf in the main room, and she left a box with extra clothes, rice, tea, and sugar on the kitchen table with a note for Esther: Take whatever you like! I'll miss you! Love, Lily.

Next to the front door sits her backpack, a hulking beast of a thing, which she's organized and loaded and unloaded countless times in the previous days. She unzips it once more and runs her hands among the items inside, touching each in turn as if they were talismans: two changes of clothes; a sleeping bag and lightweight tarp; an aluminum water bottle; a Swiss Army knife; a ziplock with essential toiletries; and a first-aid collection that includes bandages, iodine tablets, a malaria self-testing kit, ibuprofen, and two courses of Cipro, because as much as she feels protected by the power of her convictions, a little medicinal chemistry never hurt.

Finally, snug against the spine of the pack, she finds the journal. She fingers the familiar, hard cover — a piercing azure, the way she remembers the sky over the Rockies — and thinks of the precious information contained within. She's been careful, she knows, but has she been careful enough? Her mind swirls with the stories she's heard, stories of the missing, the resurrected, the dead. She zips the backpack and hefts it on. She closes the door behind her without looking back.

Outside, the night is cool, the darkness cut by the light of a partial moon and two planets, Jupiter and Venus, joined in a rare triple conjunction. When Christoph told her about it yesterday at dinner, it felt like a sign: a blessing from the universe. Now she pauses to take in the clear, brilliant sky, the smiling moon, the planets paired like twins. So much has aligned to bring her to this point.

The most dangerous part lies ahead.

Hidden insects buzz from the low grass, and she treads cautiously, mindful of cobras; she'd ignored Kenneth's warnings for months and then nearly stepped on one last week as she left for work. She'd been thinking of something else when the snake snapped up and opened its hood, and she didn't even scream, just backed away slowly and called in a steady voice to Esther, who ran to get Kenneth so he could kill it with a panga. She was proud of how calmly she acted, how composed in the face of lethality. That, too, felt like a sign: that she is capable of anything, that she is stronger and braver than anyone would guess.

A shadow comes up beside her — it's Blue, the compound mutt, wagging his skinny tail in quick, low circles. He whines and licks her fingers, and she rubs his ears in response. "It's all right, boy," she whispers. "It's just me."

She's sad to leave him behind. When she first arrived she thought he was the most beautiful dog she'd ever seen: tawny with streaks of copper and black, elongated legs and huge pointed ears, coyote-like. He didn't have a name, so she gave him one that made her think of home. Now he trails her across the yard, past the garden with its rows of beans and groundnuts, past the shed where she can make out Kenneth's sleeping figure sprawled on the long bench inside, all the way to the gate. The latch is heavy but quiet, and she cracks open the metal doors just wide enough to slip her backpack through and then her slender self. Blue tries to follow but she blocks the way.

"You have to stay here." She closes the gate and reaches through the slats to lower the latch back into place. Blue whines again, scratching at the door. "I'll be back," she soothes, though her voice catches at the lie.

The Catholic Mission looms darkly alongside her as she skirts the building and heads for the front steps of the church. The dirt road that leads from here toward Kitgum town is deserted. She checks her phone: 4:12 A.M. An insect chitters shrilly, insistently. She tightens her backpack straps and shifts the weight higher.

Faintly, she hears the drone of an engine in the distance. Her muscles go slack and wobbly. Doubts swoop in like bats. She can still turn back, she can still change her mind.

But when she thinks of returning home like this, without even trying — she'd regret it the rest of her life. This is bigger than her fear, bigger than her grief, bigger than all of it. She steadies herself as the engine gets closer, and then it's here, and there is no turning back, and the planets and the moon spin in place, engaged in their elaborate illusion of closeness, pinned against a backdrop of finite, boundless black.



December 24, 2008
All around her, the world was white and bright and hushed; a pale sky pressed upon red-roofed buildings and was pierced by thin, reaching branches of trees made bare by cold. Sabine nuzzled her chin deeper into her turtleneck and clenched and unclenched her hands inside her gray wool gloves to keep the circulation moving, though her fingers were already stiff and painful. She knew they wouldn't get warm again until she was back in the animal shelter and could run them under the hot-water faucets. She still had twenty minutes till then, and she couldn't make the time go any faster.

That was okay; she had become accustomed to numbness. Winter this year had come hard and early to Marburg, and Sabine both hated the cold and relished it. Hated it because she had lived so many years without it, had adjusted to the thick, heavy heat of a different continent and forgotten how bone-biting a northern wind could be. But she loved the stark nakedness through which that wind swept. She hated the layers of clothing she had to don and discard every time she entered or left a building, but she loved the city when it was buried beneath a layer of snow, clean and quiet.

Aside from a few cars driving idly past, the streets were deserted as she walked the last few blocks down to the River Lahn, pausing every few steps to let Bruno sniff a clump of dirty snow. The bells of Elisabethkirche had just rung the noon hour, and Sabine felt the stirrings of hunger. She'd take her lunch break as soon as she got back. Bruno hadn't really needed to go out — he'd had a long play session with another dog at the shelter, the two black Labs tumbling over each other in a slobbery wrestling match — but Sabine enjoyed the exercise, despite her frozen fingers. Together she and Bruno descended the stairs to the riverbank and wended their way along the river's curves. She saw that new parts of the river had frozen over since yesterday. How quickly the water turned to ice. She knew, too, given a sudden rise in temperature or even a light rain, how quickly it would turn back.

She thought of her niece, Lily, who was returning to the U.S. today after half a year volunteering in Uganda. It was Lily's first time in Africa. All those years Sabine had lived on the continent — in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mozambique — Lily had asked to visit, but Sabine kept putting her off. When Lily graduated from college earlier this year and announced that she'd arranged to spend six months as a volunteer in Kitgum — a small town in northern Uganda, the site of Sabine's last assignment — Sabine had felt a flicker of foreboding, but all she said was, "Stay smart, stay humble, and if you're going to ride bodas, for God's sake wear a helmet."

For the past five months, Lily had e-mailed religiously once a week from the offices of the nonprofit organization where she worked, using an ancient computer she dubbed Old Reliable. She wrote about the children she counseled, the expats she met, the groundnut sauce, the smell of the earth after a heavy rain. Her messages reflected the standard surges of optimism and defeat, eagerness and frustration that plagued all first-timers with the unfortunate possession of innate idealism. Sabine was tempted to write long e-mails in return, peeling back the layers of naïveté that fostered such sentiments, but in the end did not interfere. Lily would learn the harsh truths of aid — and of herself — and come out stronger for it.

Then came Lily's last e-mail, three weeks back; Sabine recalled the precise words, the phrases so very American, so earnest:

Wrapping up things in Kitgum ... a few weeks left in Uganda, I figure I'll do some sightseeing ... nice to get off the grid for a bit ... don't freak out if you guys don't hear from me before my flight!!!

There was no mistaking the emphasis of those three exclamation marks. Since then, Sabine had dutifully managed to not freak out; that is, she'd worried about her niece backpacking alone in East Africa, but vaguely, distantly, in the way she worried about climate change and the dubious fiscal responsibility of certain members of the European Union. She was concerned, she understood the risks, but it didn't change what she ate for dinner.

After all, Sabine had once been young in Africa, too, and she remembered clearly the exhilaration that sprang from tossing caution to the wind, the thrill of making up your itinerary as you went. Lily had turned twenty-two earlier this year, the same age as Sabine on her first assignment abroad. That year Sabine had spent her R & R hitchhiking around Ethiopia with nothing more than some camping equipment and a stack of U.S. dollars. That was before cell phones and e-mail made transcontinental communication instantaneous and cheap, before Couchsurfing and Lonely Planet built the temple of budget travel in which every restless college grad worshipped. Sabine remembered pitching a tent outside Lalibela and waking in the morning to a band of local men in her campsite brandishing scythes. After some animated discussion — mostly in the form of charged gestures — she realized that they were afraid she had come to steal relics out of the churches. They'd been drinking tej all night to work up to a confrontation. When she assured them that she was only interested in seeing the stone-hewed churches, perhaps with the assistance of a hired guide or two, their anger dissolved and everyone was chummy.

But it could have been otherwise, and in those days pre–cell phones and Internet, when things went wrong, they went truly wrong. Modern backpacking, with all its guidebooks and safety nets, seemed to Sabine to be relatively benign — certainly more benign than the moral thicket of humanitarianism — and Lily had already managed half a year in Uganda on her own. After Lily sent her final missive from Kitgum, Sabine went about her life in Germany as usual, attending to the animals at the shelter, scattering salt on her balcony to melt the snow. Every so often she'd think of her niece somewhere near the equator, wearing flip-flops and getting tipsy on perspiring bottles of Nile Special, sleeping in hostels under mosquito nets with the sheets kicked off. These visions rarely lingered.

Now Lily's three-week holiday was over, and with it, her time in Uganda. If Sabine had the time difference right, Lily had landed in Denver hours ago. Steve — Lily's stepfather — was supposed to pick her up. Just last night Sabine lay in bed imagining Lily's plane somewhere above, perhaps passing over this very part of Germany on her way from Entebbe to Amsterdam and onward toward home.

As they turned the next corner, Bruno tensed and stopped, his eyes trained ahead. Sabine followed his gaze, looking through a screen of slender, tangled branches, and was startled by a movement at the edge of the river on the opposite side. A tall man clothed in all black stood on the icy shore. Sabine gripped Bruno's leash tighter.

Apparently unaware of Sabine's presence, the man kneeled down onto the packed snow and came on all fours, then — to Sabine's profound surprise — began to crawl slowly onto the frozen river.

Bruno growled low in his throat, and Sabine soothed him with a hand on his head. Meanwhile the man moved steadily forward, his gloved fingers brushing the ice ahead to feel the way. Sabine was baffled. The man seemed to be crazy. There was no way of knowing how thick the ice was — it could be newly frozen, fatal if it cracked and he went through.

No one else was around. The man was silent as he paused, knocked lightly on the ice, then crawled another few centimeters. Sabine held her breath. The moment felt uncanny, this strangely solitary man breaking into her own strange solitude.

Then she saw the swan. Obscured by the branches in the way, the swan's colors had matched the blue-white of the river and snow. Now she could make out the shape of its back, the writhing limb of its neck. It began to hiss, pumping its orange and black beak forward as if hoping to pull the rest of its body free.

Which, Sabine could see clearly now, would fail: the bird was trapped, frozen into the ice. Even its wings were pressed tight against its body. She knew this happened sometimes with ducks and other water birds that chose poorly where they slept the night. Usually they died. But swans seemed so big, so powerful; surely this one would have been able to thrash its way out?

Sabine looked again at the man's clothes and realized he was wearing full-body waders, like fishermen. When he turned slightly away from her to evaluate his distance from shore, she saw a hand ax tucked into his back belt loop. She dared not move, both for fear of agitating the swan further and because she didn't want the man to know he was being watched. Bruno sat and started sniffing the air. Sabine didn't remove her hand from his head.

The closer the man got to the swan, the harder the swan strained its neck. The man seemed to know the danger of getting too close; he stopped a few feet away, just out of reach, and pulled out his ax.

As gently as if stroking a cat, he began tapping the ax against the ice.

Bit by bit he chipped the frozen river away, taking care not to shift his body weight nor come within range of the swan's angry beak. Sabine watched, enthralled. Time was lost to her. The man's fierce concentration was contagious; Sabine hardly breathed. The world narrowed to the scene before her: the scratch scratch scratch, tap tap, scratch scratch of the man's ax, the swan's constant hiss.

A crack broke the trance; bits of ice bobbed in the water, suddenly loose, and the bird surged forward. The man got to his feet quickly and stumbled back, out of range of those massive, miraculous wings, as the sheet of ice shifted and groaned. He made it to shore just as the swan beat its way out of the river and into the air, and the ice broke away. The swan was gone in seconds.

Stillness returned to the sky, the river.

Then Bruno barked and Sabine remembered herself; she looked over at the man as he noticed them for the first time. He waved, unembarrassed, then gathered his things and trudged on in the other direction. Sabine watched him until his figure disappeared around a bend, even after she felt her phone begin to vibrate deep beneath her winter layers. Slowly, she removed her gloves and undid the necessary zippers to pull it out.

She was surprised to see Steve's name on the caller ID. In an instant the swan was swept aside, vanished as if from a dream.

"Steve?" she answered. "It must be four in the morning over there. Was Lily's flight so late?" "She's not here," Steve said, his voice panicked. "Lily's not here."

"Not there?" Sabine said. Holding the phone to her ear, her exposed fingers were already white and trembling. "You mean it's delayed?"

"No, no, the plane arrived, but Lily — she wasn't on it." In the background of the call, Sabine could hear a low echoey airport announcement being made. "I just talked to the customer service rep at KLM," Steve continued. "They said she never showed up in Entebbe. Did she say anything to you about changing her ticket? Has she contacted you at all since she left Kitgum?"

"She was backpacking ..." Sabine trailed off. "She said not to worry, that she would be out of touch for a little while. Remember? She said that."

"So you haven't heard from her?"

"No. Nothing."

Bruno had stopped whining and was now, bless him, sitting patiently, watching a pair of bullfinches chatter in the branches of a nearby tree.

"What does it mean?" Steve said.

"I'm sure she's fine. She probably just missed her flight." Even as she said it, a trickle of nausea snaked through her stomach.

"And didn't tell us?" Steve said. "Not a word?"

"She might be in the air right now." Please let her be in the air right now.

"No," Steve said. "It's not like her. She would have found a way to contact me. Something happened to her." His desperation was escalating. "What was she thinking, going to Africa in the first place? Hannah would have talked her out of it."

At the invocation of her sister, a prickling of guilt wreathed Sabine's neck. "You don't know that."


Excerpted from "The Atlas of Forgotten Places"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Williams.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part I: The Missing,
Chapter 1: Sabine,
Chapter 2: Rose,
Chapter 3: Sabine,
Chapter 4: Rose,
Chapter 5: Sabine,
Chapter 6: Rose,
Chapter 7: Sabine,
Chapter 8: Rose,
Chapter 9: Sabine,
Chapter 10: Rose,
Chapter 11: Sabine,
Chapter 12: Rose Ocen,
Part II: The Resurrected,
Chapter 13: Sabine,
Chapter 14: Rose,
Chapter 15: Sabine,
Chapter 16: Rose,
Chapter 17: Sabine,
Chapter 18: Rose,
Chapter 19: Sabine,
Chapter 20: Rose,
Chapter 21: Sabine,
Chapter 22: Rose,
Part III: The Dead,
Chapter 23: Sabine,
Chapter 24: Rose,
Chapter 25: Sabine,
Chapter 26: Rose,
Author's Note,
Glossary of Acholi Terms,
Book Club readers' Guide,
About the Author,

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