The Good Braider by Terry Farish
Marshall Cavendish, 2012
In spare free verse laced with unforgettable images, Viola’s strikingly original voice sings out the story of her family s journey from war-torn Sudan, to Cairo, and finally to Portland, Maine. Here, in the sometimes too close embrace of the local Southern Sudanese Community, she dreams of South Sudan while she tries to navigate the strange world of America a world where a girl can wear a short skirt, get a tattoo or even date a boy; a world that puts her into sharp conflict with her traditional mother who, like Viola, is struggling to braid together the strands of a displaced life.
Terry Farish s haunting novel is not only a riveting story of escape and survival, but the universal tale of a young immigrant s struggle to build a life on the cusp of two cultures.
I am not always the biggest fan of books written in verse – very rarely do I feel that the style really “works”. But the synopsis for this book was interesting enough and so different from anything else I’d read that I decided to give it a try. And I’m really glad I did, because this was a beautifully-written book.
Viola is a teenager living in war-torn South Sudan with her grandmother, mother, and younger brother, Francis. When the danger and desperation become too much to bear, they leave their small town of Juba and escape to Cairo, where they finally gain refugee status and come to the US, and the town of Portland, Maine. However, once in the US, Viola finds it difficult to keep her identity straight. The Good Braider tells the story of Viola’s transition to a new life, and the struggles and sorrows that go hand-in-hand with that change.
As I mentioned, this book is written in free verse, and I have to say that the short phrases, the emphasis on portions of the sentences, really worked well to convey Viola’s voice and feelings. You get to see through her eyes as things become too much for her to bear in Sudan; you get to experience what it’s like to be a refugee traveling to a camp, and then on a boat to Egypt, and a bus to Cairo. You get to see her and her mother’s struggles to gain refugee status and be permitted to come to the US, and the differences in cultures and the ways they had to adapt and change. Viola was a very well-drawn character with such a unique voice and spirit; even when she’s at her lowest, there was just something about her that didn’t allow her to give up. She has very real flaws, mostly dealing with the fact that she had to leave her grandmother behind in Sudan, and also something traumatic that happened to her. She and her mother face so many difficulties, but both are wonderfully strong women who never give up.
I do want to warn that this book contains a rape scene; it’s not graphic so much in terms of the way it’s written about, but the words she uses when she’s flashing back and thinking about it are quite descriptive and could trigger someone who experienced something similar. While the initial scene isn’t long, it’s referenced several times throughout the story, so I just want to give a heads-up if that’s something that you might struggle with.
There were portions of this book that were so moving I was almost in tears; Viola’s struggles to adjust to the US, to try to become more American, to try to get out from under the sometimes suffocating presence of the Sudanese community in Maine, were so well written that I was just completely empathetic to Viola’s plight. Like most children of immigrants, she has an easier time of it than her mother, who wants to continue to raise Viola the Sudanese way, not realizing that what she could do in Sudan is not tolerated in the US in terms of punishment or even lifestyle. There was one particular section that was quite painful to read, but I don’t want to expand on my thoughts in order to avoid spoilers. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you read the book.
Throughout it all, you get to see pieces of the Sudanese culture, particularly when it comes to the way the women braid each other’s hair. Viola learned from her mother to braid, but the journey from Juba to the US leaves her with a bit of a bitterness toward it, and she refuses to braid anyone’s hair, least of all her own. As the book progresses you see her continued struggle with the idea of braiding, and you see her work out where she stands and how she feels, until it comes to its natural progression. The mentions of the braiding were particularly strong; it’s such a part of her, but she’s so traumatized – even if she doesn’t know it – that she refuses to let her gift live inside her.
I also want to make a mention of the fact that this book seemed extremely well-researched. In her author’s notes at the end, she lists tons and tons of names of people who helped her, including the very real Sudanese community of Portland, Maine. I am so pleased that she gave credit where credit was due, and the fact that portraying an accurate picture of what it’s like to be a Sudanese refugee was so important to her. I was just really pleased with the whole feel of the author’s notes and am really glad the e-galley included them.
The Good Braider is an extremely powerful look at what it’s like to journey from one life to another, and the challenges and hardships that leaving your life behind entails. There are some very disturbing parts to this book – I would rate it as upper YA – but the strength of Viola’s character is so wonderful that I can’t help but recommend it.
An e-galley was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.