An Economist Best Book of the Year
Esther Akello is one of thirty Ugandan teenage girls abducted from a Catholic boarding school by rebel bandits. Held captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army, Esther is forced to witness and commit unspeakable atrocities. She struggles to survive, to escape, and to find a way to live with what she has seen and done. Jane Wood is a sensual, idealistic American writer who is traveling across Africa, hoping to give a voice to young people like Esther and to find her own center.
In unflinching prose, Minot interweaves the stories of these two astonishing young women who, as they confront displacement and heartbreak, are hurtled inexorably closer to one another. With mesmerizing emotional intensity and stunning evocations of Africa’s struggles and beauty, Susan Minot gives us her most brilliant novel yet.
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They Took All of Us
1 / Thirty Girls
The night they took the girls Sister Giulia went to bed with only the usual amount of worry and foreboding and rubbing of her knuckles. She said her extra prayer that all would stay peaceful, twisted down the rusted dial of her kerosene lamp and tucked in the loose bit of mosquito net under the mattress.
The bed was small and she took up very little of it, being a slight person barely five feet long. Indeed, seeing her asleep one might have mistaken her for one of her twelve-year-old students and not the forty-two-year-old headmistress of a boarding school that she was. Despite her position, Sister Giulia’s room was one of the smaller rooms upstairs in the main building at St. Mary’s where the sisters were housed. Sisters Alba and Fiamma shared the largest room down the hall and Sister Rosario—who simply took up more space with her file cabinets and seed catalogues—had commandeered the room with the shallow balcony overlooking the interior walled garden. But Sister Giulia didn’t mind. She was schooled in humility and it came naturally to her.
The banging appeared first in her dream.
When she opened her eyes she knew immediately it was real and as present in the dark room as her own heart beating. It entered the open window, a rhythmic banging like dull axes hitting at stone. They are at the dorms, she thought.
Then she heard a softer knocking, at her door. She was already sitting up, her bare feet feeling for the straw flip-flops on the floor. Yes? she whispered.
Sister, said a voice, and in the darkness she saw the crack at the door widen and in it the silhouetted head of the night watchman.
George, I am coming, she said, and felt for the cotton sweater on the chair beside her table. Sister, the voice said. They are here.
She stepped into the hall and met with the other nuns whispering in a shadowy cluster. At the end of the hallway one window reflected dim light from the two floodlights around the corner at the main entrance. The women moved toward it like moths. Sister Alba already had her wimple on—she was never uncovered—and Sister Giulia wondered in the lightning way of idle thoughts if Sister Alba slept in her habit and then thought of how preposterous it was to be having that thought at this moment.
Che possiamo fare? said Sister Rosario. What to do? Sister Rosario usually had an opinion of exactly what to do, but now, in a crisis, she was deferring to her superior.
We cannot fight them, Sister Giulia said, speaking in English for George.
No, no, the nuns mumbled, agreeing, even Sister Rosario.
They must be at the dormitory, someone said.
Yes, Sister Giulia said. I think this, too. Let us pray the door holds.
They listened to the banging. Now and then a voice shouted, a man’s voice.
Sister Chiara whispered, coming from the back, The door must hold.
It was bolted from the inside with a big steel beam. When the sisters put the girls to bed, they waited to hear the giant plank slide into place before saying good night.
Andiamo, Sister Giulia said. We must not stay here, they would find us. Let us hide in the garden and wait. What else can we do?
Everyone shuffled mouselike down the back stairs. On the ground floor they crossed the tiled hallway past the canning rooms and closed door of the storage room and into the laundry past the tables and wooden shelves. Sister Alba was breathing heavily. Sister Rosario jangled the keys, unlocking the laundry, and they stepped outside to the cement walkway bordering the sunken garden. A clothesline hung nearby with a line of pale dresses followed by a line of pale T‑shirts. Dark paths divided the garden in crosses, and in between were humped tomato plants and the darker clumps of coffee leaves and white lilies bursting like trumpets. A three-quarter moon in the western sky cast a gray light over all the foliage so it looked covered in talc.
The nuns huddled against the far wall under banana trees. The wide leaves cast moonlit shadows.
The banging, it does not stop, whispered Sister Chiara. Her hand was clamped over her mouth.
They are trying very hard, Sister Alba said.
We should have moved them, Sister Rosario said. I knew it.
The headmistress replied in a calm tone. Sister, we cannot think of this now.
They’d put up the outside fence two years ago, and last year they’d been given the soldiers. Government troops came, walking around campus with guns strapped across their chests, among the bougainvillea and girls in their blue uniforms. At night some were stationed at the end of the driveway passing through the empty field, some stood at the gate near the chapel. Then, a month ago, the army had a census taking and the soldiers were moved twenty kilometers north. Sister Giulia had pestered the captain to send the soldiers back. There was never more than a day’s warning when the rumors of an attack would reach them, so the nuns took the girls to nearby homes for the night. They will be back, the captain said. Finally, last week, the soldiers returned. The girls slept, the sisters slept. Then came the holiday on Sunday. The captain said, They will be back at the end of the day. But they didn’t return. They stayed off in the villages, getting drunk on sorghum beer.
The Jeep had been out of fuel, so Sister Giulia took the bicycle to Atoile. From Atoile someone went all the way to Loro in Kamden to see if the soldiers were there. No sign of the army. She sent a message to Salim Salee, the captain of the north, who was in Gulu. Must we close the school? she asked. No, do not close the school, he answered by radio. When she arrived back at St. Mary’s it was eight o’clock and pitch black and still nothing was settled. Sister Alba had the uneaten dinner there waiting for the soldiers. Sister Rosario had overseen the holiday celebrations and gathered the girls at the dorm for an early lights-out.
The banging had now become muted. The garden where the nuns stayed hiding was still, but the banging and shouting reached them, traveling over the quadrangle lawn then the roof of their building and down into the enclosed garden. Across the leafy paths at the entrance doors they could see George’s shadow where he’d positioned himself, holding a club.
I don’t hear any of the girls, said Sister Fiamma.
No, I have not heard them, said Sister Giulia. They could make out each other’s faces, and Sister Giulia’s eyebrows were pointed toward one another, as they often were, in a triangle of concern.
What’s burning? Sister Guarda pointed over the roof to a braid of red sparks curling upward.
It’s coming from the chapel, I think.
They wouldn’t burn the chapel.
Sister, they murder children, these people.
They heard the tinkling of glass and the banging stopped. Instead of being a relief the sound of only shouting—of orders being given—and the occasional sputtering of fire was more ominous.
I still do not hear the girls, said Sister Chiara. She said it in a hopeful way.
They waited for something to change. It seemed they waited a long time.
The shouts had dropped to a low calling back and forth, and finally the nuns heard the voices moving closer. The voices were crossing the quadrangle toward the front gates. They were nearby. The nuns’ faces were turned toward George where he stood motionless against the whitewashed wall. Sister Giulia held the crucifix on her necklace, muttering prayers.
The noise of the rebels passed. The sound grew dim. Sister Giulia stood.
Wait, Sister Alba said. We must be sure they are gone.
I can wait no longer. Sister Giulia took small steps on the shaded pathway and reached George.
Are they gone?
It is appearing so, George said. You remain here while I see it.
No, George. She followed him onto the porch’s platform. They are my girls.
He looked at her to show he did not agree, but he would not argue with the sister. Behind her he saw the pale figures of the other nuns moving across the garden like a fog. You walk behind me, he said.
George unbolted the doors of the breezeway and opened them to the gravel driveway lit by the floodlights. They looked upon a devastation.
The ground was littered with trash—burned sticks and bits of rubber and broken glass. Scattered across the grass of the quadrangle in the shadows were blankets and clothes. George and Sister Giulia stepped down, emerging like figures from a spaceship onto a new planet. In front of the chapel, the Jeep was burning with a halo of smoke. Dark smoke was also bellowing up in long tubes out of the smashed windows of the chapel. But she and George turned toward the dormitory. They could see a black gap in the side where the barred window had been. The whole frame had been ripped out and used as a ladder. That’s how they’d gotten inside.
Bits of glass glittered on the grass. There were soda cans, plastic rope, torn plastic bags. The second dormitory farther down was still dark and still. Thank the Lord, that appeared untouched. Those were the younger ones.
The girls . . . , Sister Giulia said. She had her hands out in front of her as if testing the silence. She saw no movement anywhere.
We must look, George said.
They stood at the gaping hole where the yanked window frame was leaning. The concrete around the frame was hacked away in chunks. One light shone from the back of the dormitory, the other bulbs had been smashed.
From the bushes they heard a soft voice: Sister.
Sister Giulia turned and bent down. Two girls were crouched in the darkness, hugging their nightshirts.
You are here, Sister Giulia said, dizzy with gratitude. She embraced the girls, feeling their thin arms, their small backs. The smaller one—it was Penelope—stayed clutching her.
You are safe, Sister Giulia said.
No, Penelope said, pressing her head against her stomach. We are not.
The other girl, Olivia Oki, rocked back and forth, holding her arm in pain.
Sister Giulia gathered them both up and steered them out of the bushes into some light. Penelope kept a tight hold on her waist. Her face was streaked with grime and her eyes glassed over.
Sister, they took all of us, Penelope said.
They took all of you?
She nodded, crying.
Sister Giulia looked at George, and his face understood. All the girls were gone. The other sisters caught up to them.
Sister Chiara embraced Penelope, lifting her. There, there, she said. Sister Fiamma was inspecting Olivia Oki’s arm and now Olivia was crying too.
They tied us together and led us away, Penelope said. She was sobbing close to Sister Chiara’s face. They came to know afterward that Penelope had been raped as she tried to run across the grass and was caught near the swing. She was ten years old.
Sister Giulia’s lips were pursed into a tighter line than usual.
George, she said, make sure the fire is out. Sister Rosario, you find out how many girls are gone. I am going to change. There is no time to lose.
No more moving tentatively, no more discovering the damage and assessing what remained. She strode past Sister Alba, who was carrying a bucket of water toward the chapel.
Sister Giulia re-entered the nuns’ quarters and took the stairs to her room. No lights were on, but it was no longer pitch black. She removed her nightdress and put on her T‑shirt, then the light-gray dress with a collar. She tied on her sneakers, thin-soled ones that had been sent from Italy.
She hurried back down the stairs and across the entryway, ignoring the sounds of calamity around her and the smell of fire and oil and smoke. She went directly to her office and removed the lace doily from the safe under the table, turned the dial right, then left, and opened the thick weighty door. She groped around for the shoebox and pulled out a rolled wad of bills. She took one of the narrow paper bags they used for coffee beans and put the cash in it then put the bag in the small backpack she removed from the hook on the door. About to leave, she noticed she’d forgotten her wimple and looked around the room, like a bird looking for an insect, alert and thoughtful. She went to her desk drawer, remembering the blue scarf there. She covered her hair with the scarf, tying it at her neck, hooking it over her ears. That would have to do.
When she came out again she met with Thomas Bosco, the math teacher. Bosco, as everyone called him, was a bachelor who lived at the school and spent Christmas with the sisters and was part of the family. He stayed in a small hut off the chapel on his own. He may not have been so young, but he was dependable and they would call upon him to help jump-start the Jeep, replace a lightbulb or deliver a goat.
Bosco, she said. It has happened.
Yes, he said. I’ve seen.
Sister Rosario came bustling forward with an affronted air. They have looted the chapel, she said. As usual she was making it clear she took bad news harder than anyone else.
Bosco looked at Sister Giulia’s knapsack. You are ready?
Yes. She nodded as if this had all been discussed. Let us go get our girls.
Bosco nodded. If it must be, let us go die for our girls.
And off they set.
By the time they had left the gate, crossed the open field on the dirt driveway and were walking a path leading into the bush, the sky had started to brighten. The silhouette of the trees emerged black against the luminous screen. The birds had not yet started up, but they would any minute. Bosco led the way, reminding the sister to beware of mines. The ground was still dark and now and then they came across the glint of a crushed soda can or a candy wrapper suspended in the grass. A pale shape lay off to the side, stopping Sister Giulia’s heart for a moment. Bosco bent down and picked up a small white sweater.
We are going the right way, she said. She folded the sweater and put it in her backpack, and they continued on. They did not speak of what had happened or what would happen, thinking only of finding the girls.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group’s experience of reading Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls. We hope they will provide you with many ways of approaching this gripping and powerful new novel from the bestselling and award-winning author of Monkeys and Evening.
1. What do you notice about the alternating narrators in the chapters at the beginning? Does the novel follow this structure throughout? Is the experience of this novel dependent on the contrast between the two stories and points of view?
2. At the beginning, Jane is “ready for anything different from what she’d known” (p. 29). We learn that she felt “bound…fiercely” to her husband although he rejected her (p. 39). Is it clear what has caused her sense of alienation from her life, or not so clear?
3. Minot sets up the historical background of her novel in a chapter narrated by Esther Akello. These events might not have been on the radar, at the time, of American readers of this novel. In what ways does the novel raise awareness of the distance between Americans and people who live in more dangerous parts of the world?
4. Sister Giulia and Bosco take on the courageous task of trying to rescue the girls, and Sister Giulia is forced to decide which thirty girls must remain with the rebels. How does she make this decision? What would you do if faced with a situation like this?
5. What is it about Harry that is attractive to Jane? What does the sex between Harry and Jane tell us about them? If her interest in him is sexual at first, how does it deepen into love? What elements of Minot’s writing style make their love scenes powerful?
6. Jane often feels moody and detached. She wishes that “she could observe the world with amusement and be inviting and light” (p. 126); at other times, she feels “united and whole” (p. 127). How do you relate to Jane’s shifting psychological and emotional states?
7. Esther tries to keep herself detached from what she experiences and witnesses: “For myself I tried to keep a calm place inside me. This place I thought of as my soul. I pictured it in the shape of a white marble bowl. … I used to think God sat in that shallow bowl” (p. 151). How well does this strategy work for her?
8. On the long journey into northern Uganda, Jane and her friends learn about violent chapters of the country’s history while also seeing wondrous sights like the source of the Nile, which makes Jane “aware of the romance in the word [Nile].… Then she thought of how in history at that moment, three hundred miles north of this peaceful gliding river, children were being yanked out of their homes, held captive, raped, infected with deadly disease, and made to kill” (p. 117). At another point, “they all stood…where Idi Amin had had people thrown in to be eaten by crocodiles” (p. 167). How do these descriptions illuminate Jane’s difficulty in comprehending these sights and this knowledge?
9. About being forced to participate in the murder of the girl from Gulu, Esther says that she told herself, “This is the worst thing that would ever happen” (p. 155). She later says, “I still do not so much care if I am good anymore or not. In these times it feels good to hate” (p. 159). If this novel is partly about the possibility of healing, how does Esther cope with the sense that she has lost her innocence and her humanity? How does she deal with having survived when her friend Agnes did not?
10. What is Jane seeking in life and on this journey? What is she trying to escape? What changes in her when she visits the camp and interviews Esther and the other?
11. Several small sections of the book are entitled “The You File” (pp. 99, 249, 293, 366). What is their relationship to the stories of Esther and Jane? Who is speaking in these pages?
12. Jane’s desire to come to Uganda began when she met Grace Dollo in New York, and walked home thinking, “I will do something” (p. 172-73). How unusual is it for someone to act on such a desire? When she visits the school from which the girls were taken, Jane thinks, “To learn of another’s suffering is to confront one’s own shame” (p. 203). How does this idea resonate throughout the novel?
13. Does anything prepare you for the shooting of Harry? How do you connect this element of the story with what Jane has already experienced in Africa? How does it affect the novel’s sense of closure?
14. What is striking about Minot’s writing style? Discuss a few passages that you found particularly memorable or evocative.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Susan Minot
Susan Minot takes a radical departure in Thirty Girls, her first novel in twelve years. Definitively leaving behind the cultivated New England milieu of her earlier books, she explores a setting deep in the Ugandan bush where, in 1996, thirty teenage girls were abducted from their school and forced to kill and function as sex slaves. Although far from her comfort zone, the book is a triumph of novelistic empathy and courageous risk taking.
Throughout the interview in the corner of a cozy Greenwich Village hotel lobby, Ms. Minot attends to our questions with a concentrated seriousness of purpose, frequently broken by a radiant smile that warms the room. But we start small. Daniel Asa Rose The Barnes & Noble Review: What's with the bandage on your index finger?
Susan Minot: I sliced off the tip last night peeling potatoes with a new peeler.
BNR: But you shouldn't be peeling potatoes in the first place. All the nutrients are in the skin.
SM: But there's still plenty in the potato itself.
BNR: I see you're quite firm on this point.
SM: I suppose I am.
BNR: Then I concede. Let's talk about your new book. It seems to me you have done a very brave thing on at least two levels. First, you've found an entirely new setting within which to reinvigorate yourself. And it certainly seems to have done the trick. The protagonist Jane repeatedly alludes to how "alert" Africa makes her, how revitalized she is to be "finding herself here" in a place where "each step seemed to take her deeper into a true life she had not known before."
SM: Change and renewal are themes in life, aren't they? We keep growing throughout life.
BNR: Yet no matter where you set your characters, they always seem to grapple with "desire and death" as their perpetual subjects.
SM: Those themes are certainly always there. But they don't have to be all-consuming. People can have a variety of concerns at the same time. Even those undergoing grave or traumatic experiences will acknowledge the need for lightness or even entertainment.
BNR: Well, that's a second way your book is brave. You don't address the tragedy of the African girls in a vacuum. There's also a second plot about Jane falling in love with a younger African man as she comes closer and closer to her interview with Esther, one of the thirty girls.
SM: Why is that brave?
BNR: Because you open yourself to the charge of trivializing the third-world horrors with first-world concerns of love for an unavailable man that might be considered superficial, up against the bigger questions of abduction and rape.
SM: I don't consider the first-world concerns any less important than the third-world ones. Matters of life and death are certainly more pressing in practical terms, but the fact that they are "bigger" or more dramatic does not necessarily make them more important in terms of conveying the experience of being alive. If we're talking about struggling to be in your life, all concerns are valid?.
BNR: Go on?.
SM: Well, it's what I sometimes find myself telling my students [at NYU]. I see them dismissing their day-to-day issues as petty or unworthy, because they are aware of their privilege. I try to point out to them that their experience and their point of view is what they have to offer in their writing, if they can succeed in bringing them out. "Everything that lives is holy."
BNR: Is that the Catholic in you saying that?
SM: No, the poet. I'm quoting William Blake. But Tolstoy, too, is very eloquent in talking about how all suffering is the same. In War and Peace, Pierre has the credentials to address this issue when he's on his grueling march to Moscow as a prisoner of war.
BNR: As a matter of fact, I think the clash between the two plots in your book creates an interesting dissonance, and also real-time suspense as Jane brings her concerns closer and closer to Esther's. To be brutally honest, that's when my initial worry as a reader was finally allayed.
SM: What initial worry?
BNR: That you might have chosen this topic strategically, to deepen your oeuvre with the instant gravitas a Big African Book can confer, a la Dave Eggers or Ishmael Beah.
SM: On the contrary, I always had the feeling that the topic sort of chose me.
BNR: I eventually came to that feeling myself. I was entirely won over by the way the two worlds inevitably collided around two-thirds of the way through.
SM: More like three-quarters, I'd say.
BNR: Luckily there's more than enough honest stuff to keep us going until then. For one thing, there's the painterly description of the landscape: "the side of the road crumbl[ing] like pie crust," "a screen of haze infus[ing] the air with a silver light," "puffs [rising] out of the trees like dialogue bubbles from villages hidden from sight..."
SM: I was going to be a painter, you know, and I still paint.
BNR: And for another thing, there's the weighty love Jane has for Harry, who is a paraglider, of all weightless things.
SM: For five years the book was titled Flight.
BNR: So it went through more than one title. Was it a particularly difficult book to write?
SM: The most grueling of them all. It took me seven years. I thought it would take three.
BNR: What was grueling, exactly?
SM: Making Jane not simpering. Getting Esther's voice right. I wasn't sure I could pull it off, speaking in the voice of a young African girl.
BNR: But it has the ring of truth. Esther is so traumatized she's in a semi-dissociative state, yet you capture it. "Maybe I'll get up when I'm ready. Maybe I won't. I hate everyone." How did someone from such different circumstances ever manage to channel this semi-literate girl from the bush?
SM: I don't know. Your doubts can sometimes spur you on, you know. And there's an internal voice saying, "Come on. Do it, do it."
BNR: As for the collision itself, when it finally does occur, it is enormously and thoroughly moving. I actually don't think the book would have worked as well if we hadn't had Jane's first-world concerns to give perspective to Esther's third-world ones.
SM: Maybe not.
BNR: It seems to me that the second plot (Jane's) answers the crucial question she poses herself when she asks: "How could she be thinking so lightly of love, here in a place where people's lips were cut off and girls were snatched out of their beds?" Maybe the second plot is Jane's reply to that question that it's precisely in a place like this that it's essential to think lightly of love.
SM: I would say the answer to Jane's question is, because that is how the human mind works, drifting without discipline or measure much of the time.
BNR: Yet when the collision occurs, it doesn't get any better that this. "They were beyond words now. Esther's head leaned more heavily [on Jane's shoulder] and Jane felt the close- cropped hair brushing against her chin." It seems to fulfill, only momentarily but more beautifully, Jane's need for physical closeness that she's no longer getting from Harry. Something is released in Esther as she mumbles, even though we can't hear what it is she's mumbling "so weakly it sounded like the squeaks of a small animal."
SM: They validate each other's experience in some way. And it opens up something in both of them. In this moment their experiences overlap.
BNR: And that's miraculous, isn't it, as well as brave? The only thing more moving is the sense of longing throughout, perhaps even more strongly here than in your previous books. Both Esther and Jane experience it, though it's given to Jane to articulate most poignantly in passages like this: "Her hand was flat on his chest feeling the sweat on his skin and she still had the longing to be closer. Would it ever stop? Did one ever get to a place where longing vanished?"
And so my final question to you is: Are any of your protagonists getting closer to such a place? Are you yourself?
SM: Longing, for everyone, is always there, isn't it? More intense at some times than others. You get closer to less longing, an odd metaphoric phrasing I realize, then you are further and longing more than ever again...
BNR: Thank you. I just hope critics appreciate the risks you've taken here.
SM: We'll see.
BNR: Meantime, take care of that index finger.
SM: I will.
March 6, 2014
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story is told through two people: a girl who was abducted and a journalist, who, for most of the story, is just whining and blabbing about this and that--her story got very boring. The girl's side of it was interesting, and enlightening, as it was based on true facts.
Beyond boring,, glad I didn't spend money on this book. Long winded and poor character development. I forced myself to finish hoping it would get better. It did not.
I sent this to my Eng. Literature major sister. It is beautifully written. The whole plot is weak and rambles, but it just flows.
Want to continue? ;)
Im here i gt<\>gtb in five min. Post post post
Ok shall we start