Thirty Girls: A Novel

  • By Susan Minot
  • Knopf
  • 320 pp.

A Ugandan teenager and an American journalist struggle to find meaning in horrific wartime events.

Thirty Girls: A Novel

Susan Minot’s fourth novel veers sharply from her prior oeuvre, in which lust and vice lie in familiar domestic spheres. In Thirty Girls, the backdrop is Africa, a place where certain atrocities and lawlessness don’t fit neatly into traditional Western logic. Minot maintains her chosen subject of yearning for the inaccessible in a story of two women whose paths converge when one of them ventures to write about the other’s tragedy.

Thirty Girls reimagines as fiction the real-life horror that took place at St. Mary’s College of Aboke in 1996, when soldiers of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony  captured 130 girls. Sister Rachele Fassera, a nun at the school, followed rebels through the brush and managed to rescue all but 30 of those kidnapped.

Haunted by the plight of thousands of abducted children, Jane, a divorced American journalist, travels to Nairobi and partners with a group of Western travelers on a mission to meet and write about some of the girls who have suffered rape, slavery, and isolation at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

At the beginning of her journey, she meets Harry, a young white Kenyan with whom she begins a hasty, and potentially dangerous, affair. Clear from the beginning that her needs are more urgent than his, Jane struggles to separate herself from her own ill-suited desire. Only briefly does her path cross with Esther’s, a young survivor of abduction, one of Kony’s “thirty girls.” Jane slowly coaxes Esther to reflect back on her life in captivity and her journey home.

The soulful parts of the novel are Esther’s fractured descriptions of her experiences at the hands of Kony, her personal grief, her confrontation with the deaths of friends, her dead child, and the hope of reuniting with her parents.  

She describes her life among the kidnapped:

“We searched for food … we were always thirsty. We cut grasses for thatched roofs and collected firewood … our blouses were filthy. You walked past children sleeping on the ground then saw they were not sleeping, they were dead.”

Despite what the soldiers tell her — that her mother doesn’t love her and that Kony will save her — her resourcefulness and strength allow her to persevere against the perversions of religion and entrapment. Though she is not yet 16, she has a serious commitment to her own soul, her family, and her survival, the first of which she declares to be separate from her body. Early on, she declares her body just a vessel; therefore, the violations and pain she endures cannot touch or impair her true self.

Three-quarters through the novel, Esther emerges from hell, into a space of communal observation and connectivity, as she escapes the camp and walks alone toward freedom.

“Something was clicking. I stepped onto a wide path and saw an old man pushing a bicycle … I moved behind the tree and the man saw me. It was only one instant but I saw his face and he was not afraid of me ... He greeted me and offered to walk with me.”

You don’t get the sense that Jane acknowledges the same sense of true connection on her journey. She struggles right up to the end with where she will end up and what she’ll leave behind in Africa. Both women own their past, yet both seek different routes to emerge from it.

Thirty Girls juxtaposes the life of a privileged Western journalist with the harsh reality of the developing world. While Minot doesn’t necessarily elicit sympathy for Jane, and perhaps spends a little too long detailing her angst over sexual tensions with Harry, she does allow her enough dimension to have traveled to Africa at all, in search of a usefulness she failed to discover in her own country, steeped in her own culture.

In the end, the novel paints death and loss with two different brushes — one that is African, expected, stoic, and unyielding, and one that is precious, surprising, and harsh. Minot allows us to understand the nature of love and loss with two women from diametrically opposed worlds. Their lives illustrate that we can never control or determine the sky under which we are born and where our fate will lead us. Some of us have means and mobility, some have strength of character, but none of us can have everything. In the end, for Jane and Esther, one had a story, and one had the means to tell it.

Shanna Wilson spent a decade in book and magazine publishing on both coasts. She blogs, writes, and reviews film, art, and books and works in public relations and business development for a communications firm in Washington, DC.

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