This was another one of those books that completely breaks your heart in two! Thanks so much to Susan at AudioJukebox and Blackstone Audio for sending us the audio file of Thirty Girls by Susan Minot. Part fact and part fiction, this book tells the story of the abduction of 139 young girls from a Catholic boarding school in Uganda by the rebel group The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) lead by the vile and psychotic Joseph Kony. Wonderfully narrated by Robin Miles I was BAWLING within 15 minutes of turning this one on!
The story starts off with a bang. As the nuns running the school debate whether or not to send their students away because of the ongoing threat of kidnapping by the LRA (the only way they are able to “recruit” new members) the rebels show up in the middle of the night. The students had been bolted into their dorm rooms the night before and the nuns were relieved to find the doors untouched in the morning. Then, they saw the hole blasted into the outer wall of the girls’ dorm — all 139 of the girls had been taken. Sister Julia, the head mistress, and smallest of them all, acts quickly. She does not wait for the promised protection of the Ugandan Army (who should have been there days before) and takes off after the rebels to retrieve “her girls”. She catches up to the group and negotiates with Kony’s second-in-command, Mariano Ocaya, for the girls’ freedom. As proof that Kony’s band of rebels are not entirely evil (HA!) Ocaya allows the majority of the girls to leave. The catch? Thirty of them must stay to become a part of Kony’s “family”. Sister Julia tries to stay firm and pleads for the release of all 139 but she sees that if she presses the issue she will have to leave empty handed. It is an EXTREMELY heart wrenching scene as the small nun is forced to pick the thirty that will have to stay. The girls plead not to be picked and you cannot stop crying! She makes a promise to the group left behind that she will not rest until they are all released.
The story then oscillates between Ester, one of the surviving girls who manages to escape and is staying in a recovery hospital and Jane, a self absorbed, American journalist who has come to Africa to write a story about the girls of St. Mary’s. 15 year old Ester’s story is engaging and VERY powerful. The things that these children had to endure is unbelievable. She recounts her awful experiences while in captivity: severe beatings, forced labour, rape, AIDs deaths, being forced to kill other prisoners, proof of loyalty rituals, and terrible mind games. After months and months of physical and mental torture, being forced to be a “wife” to one of the rebels and giving birth to a still born baby, Ester finally finds her opportunity to make her escape. She arrives home virtually catatonic and suffers from extreme survivor’s guilt. She feels that she will never be the same again — how can she after all she has seen and done? Then, you have Jane.
Jane. Oh Jane! What to say about flakey Jane!? Jane has come to Africa to escape. She is recently divorced from a drug addict and hopes to do some good by writing the story of the kidnapped girls. She also hopes that by bringing awareness to the plight of these kidnapped girls she will be able to find herself. But what happens instead? She quickly attaches herself to the first man she comes in contact with (Harry, 15 years her junior who she meets though her host, Lana, who is also a flake — but a way cooler flake! Lana is someone who would be damned fun to travel with — just hold on to your man!!). Harry is a bit of a free spirit who loves to have sex and parasail. He obviously sees Jane as a fling but she falls head over heels in two-seconds flat. The Jane chapters are long, painfully detailed and pretty boring until she meets up with Ester.
Of course, it is Ester who Jane eventually interviews for her story and that part is done extremely well. How she interacts with Ester to get the story out was the best that the Jane character had to offer. She shows kindness and compassion which helps Ester begin the healing process. Once they leave the facility though, Jane goes right back to obsessing about having a man in her life — like she just didn’t experience the most heartbreaking story she has ever heard. The Harry/Jane relationship takes an unnecessary turn in the end (which I thought kind of took away from the heart of the story). I get that the juxtaposition of Jane and Ester was supposed to make us think about our own Western pettiness but Jane was just so dang unlikable and pathetic, all I could do was roll my eyes as I listened to her drivel on and on about how this guy she knew for all of three weeks was the love of her universe. Puke.
I was going to give this one a 3 star rating but by our all new audio book rating system I do have to bump it up to a 3.5 because the audio experience was very good. Robin Miles is a wizard of accents — African, Italian, Australian, South African and American — she just nails them all (a little iffy on the French though)! She also did a wonderful job of giving each character their own voice which definitely brought out their personalities. I especially enjoyed her droll Lana voice and her dick-head Don voice (Lana’s American boyfriend). Brilliant! I thoroughly enjoyed listening because of this, even though my eye rolling at Jane gave me a headache at times. 3.5 stars for a very good audiobook.
Note: In the real story all but 5 of the thirty girls of Aboke return home but not necessarily safe and sound. Not all were accepted back by their families because of what they were forced to do to survive. Can I say HEARTBREAKING one more time?