Friday, September 20, 2013

A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk

In college I had to read the adult book, "Things Fall Apart," by Chinua Achebe that tackled the theme of modern changes clashing with traditional Nigerian customs. The main character lost his high status within the traditional culture as the villagers embraced western ideas. His identity was so dependent on traditions that he "fell apart" as the world he knew changed around him. "A Girl Called Problem," also deals with changes in traditions except the villagers are not influenced by western culture; instead the President of Tanzania who defeated white colonists wants them to join other villages and practice collective farming. When the villagers of Litonga are asked to be the first to merge with the Nija Panda village, the elders decide it will be good to have education and medicine. Shida's grandfather, Babu, is the most respected elder and speaks to the villagers about it stressing that their President asked them to lead this "revolution." When Shida hears of this change she wants to embrace it for her family is an outcast in the village. Her widowed mother is considered a curse because her husband died young and she suffers from depression. Shida wants to be a nurse except girls are expected to marry. She knows that going to the new village will give her the opportunity to have a career as a healer.

Shida is persecuted at school by some of the boys and one of the teachers for being a girl and wanting to be educated. She's a strong character who knows when to stand up to a peer or seek an adult for help. This type of storyline is always great for tension and emotion. I was swept up in Shida's struggles and the author does a nice job of having the grandfather mentor them through their difficulties. While Shida can be in-your-face, she has the gentleness that makes her excellent at healing others. She soothes scared children and talks them through having shots or taking bad-tasting medicine. When she has to deal with a death of a patient she treated, the reader grieves with her.

I'm not sure I buy the villagers patriotic reasons for leaving their village. If there had been a crisis of some sort I would have believed it more - not that I need a Boston Tea Party. I reread the beginning because I thought maybe the villagers needed medicine because too many were dying of fever. Nope. Not the case. They do die of fever but there is no malaria epidemic. I thought maybe their water hole dried up and they needed water. Or their crops failed. Again, nope and nope. The main reason is patriotism; the President asked them to move their village to another, to educate their children, improve their health, and farm collectively. Their President freed them from white colonizers and the population of Tanzania worships him; therefore, him asking them to move was powerful enough for the village to uproot themselves. Babu assures the villagers that they can bring their traditions. They complain, but they go. This didn't sink in on my first read. I needed more emphasis on their President as a symbol of worship. Or I needed to slow down with my reading.

I kept thinking of the book, "A Long Walk to Water," that shows the impact of building a well and how it draws villages together in Sudan and allows children the opportunity to go to school. That book explains how the boys watch the cattle and the girls spend the entire day walking to the watering hole. A pump eliminates the long walk to water letting them go to school. A pump is mentioned in Shida's new village but I'm not sure about how they got water in their previous village. It seemed different in Tanzania. I couldn't get a picture in my head of what work the children did versus the adults. Shida seemed to do it all - work in the fields and get water - because her mother had depression. All I gathered was that the adults worked more to pick up the slack of the children being in school and the collective farming made it possible. Either I read too fast and missed the details, which is quite likely since I read the book while tooling on an elliptical machine with music blasting in the gym or maybe my background Sudanese knowledge was messing me up. Or maybe there needed to be more historical background given. I'm not a careful reader so take this as you will. And do not let my meandering thoughts keep you from reading this book with its terrific characters and unpredictable plot. Make no mistake it is a great read.

Quick does a great job working religion into the storyline in a way that supports what Babu says about them keeping their traditions. The villagers and protagonist believe strongly in witches and curses. They try to balance their beliefs with medicine and the new knowledge they have gained. This made me think of how people balance the scientific facts of evolution and Christian religion in a way that is acceptable to them. Shida begins to realize how others call women witches as a way to treat them unfairly and make them as outcasts in society. The villain uses these superstitions to his advantage and she thinks about how public opinions are manipulated as a result. This would make for great discussions on unfair treatment of minorities. These themes add authenticity, depth, and believability of characters. This is an emotional story and so many of my students love this type of book. The ending has a satisfying resolution and the struggle to adjust to changes in life is a timeless message that all can relate to in any culture.

4 Smileys

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