Children are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse

  • Edward Hoagland
  • Arcade Publishing
  • 161145834X

A novel exploring the value and meaning of the human endeavor to heal and to rescue.

Children are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse is prolific octogenarian Edward Hoagland’s third published work within the past three years, his 23rd book, and his seventh novel — although he is best known for his travel and nature essays. The novel tells the story of one man’s journey of self-discovery into the darkest heart of modern Africa’s political and human darkness. The story is told against a backdrop of geography and politics, richly described with a travel writer’s and essayist’s skills, and informed by the direct experiences of Hoagland’s five trips to Africa.  

The book’s first person American narrator, Hickey, is a self-described middle aged soldier of fortune, a “spiritual drifter … a guide, ne’er-do-well, aid worker, what-have-you, but a nice guy.” He participates in aid work in southern Sudan as a freelance, unaffiliated courier of supplies, enjoying the risky work for the sake of adventure and distraction rather than out of deep moral conviction. But when he flies in to deliver a load of supplies to an isolated refugee camp run by another American loner, Ruth, he stumbles almost by accident into deep engagement with mortal and moral danger as he becomes fascinated with the plain, complicated, enigmatic, charismatic nurse. He describes Ruth as “salt of the earth,” another “wash-ashore,” one of the “surplus of do-gooders” North America exports to Africa “like excess grain.” 

Ruth is a wounded healer, haunted by her own past traumas, and seeking a means to escape from private demons through her passionate struggle to provide children orphaned by civil war and genocide with shelter, food, and healthcare. She cannot abide the peace and security of America, and on home leaves, she tells Hickey, becomes suicidal. Danger and deprivation are paradoxically necessary to this strong woman’s fragile equilibrium, and refugee children are her “addiction.”  She is a serial adopter; she craves, needs, and requires the physical and emotional comfort and the anchoring, orienting purpose provided by dependent children.

Although Ruth is as “hardened to solitude” as a Maryknoll nun, she is “aware of what she is missing” sexually. She and Hickey, out of character for both, become casually involved, drawn together by the aphrodisiac of danger and loneliness. And at the same time, Hickey becomes attracted to and involved in her desperate, quixotic mission to save an arbitrary handful of children, to rescue a few of the precious human diamonds in her care from the encroaching apocalypse of further genocide.

As the proverb has it, when elephants fight, it is the grass that is trampled. Ruth’s refugee children are the helpless trampled grass as hostages and victims. As the violence escalates, dooming the camp, Hickey and Ruth make a desperate overland escape attempt with a carload of children. The narrator, surprised to find himself in this role of desperado savior, muses on how “accidental” it is who you save. Neither a particularly brave nor idealistic man, Hickey finds that his involvement with Ruth plunges him into circumstances where he must discover a capacity for both courage and altruism, despite the likely futility of his efforts. 

This is a gripping book, and not an easy book to read. The author confronts the reader with a world of aid work and aid workers in civil war zones, stripped of altruism and romance and almost devoid of hope. Hoagland illustrates in graphic detail the brutality of famine, AIDS, mutilation, genocide, and sex as a bargaining chip for the necessities of survival. Homer is one of Hoagland’s favorite authors, and the carnage here depicted is evocative of battle scenes in the Illiad — but without Homer’s poetry, delivered instead with the blunt, energetic, rapid-fire prose of a war correspondent.  

The author says, “In all my books … witnessing is what counts.”  He believes he developed his ability to witness, to observe closely, and describe on the page, because of the severe stammer he endured from childhood through his mid-50s. When he lost his sight in 1989, his stammer almost disappeared. “It just seemed I had to talk since I could no longer see,” he says. ( Although in 1992 his sight was restored by surgery, the author’s stammer did not reappear, and this novel is proof that Hoagland still bears eloquent witness through the written word laid down on the page.

In Children are Diamonds he witnesses and bears testimony to the desperate plight of victims of African civil war. He also bears witness and testifies to the inadequacies, uncertainties, and ambiguities of well-intentioned efforts to ameliorate suffering and futile attempts to rescue the helpless from the powers of evil. There is no resolution here, but this grim, compelling novel raises provocative and lingering questions in the mind of the reader. What is the value and meaning of the human endeavor to heal and to rescue, if specific efforts must fall short or fail?  Readers, like narrator-protagonist Hickey, will be left pondering whether or not “the best you can do does matter, whatever its quantity, and beyond the results.”

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s fiction and essays have appeared in journals including The Massachusetts Review, Potomac Review, Iron Horse, and The Fiction Writer’s Review. A clinical social worker, she holds an MFA from Bennington and is the recipient of past fellowships from The Virginia Center for the Arts. Currently she is at work on a novel set in a former psychiatric asylum.

comments powered by Disqus