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'Thirty Girls': What We Learned Later

Thirty Girls is an artful fictionalized account of the 1996 kidnapping of the St. Mary’s College schoolgirls of Aboke, Uganda.

Thirty Girls

Publisher: Vintage
Length: 384 pages
Author: Susan Minot
Price: $15.95
Format: paperback
Publication date: 2015-03

In 1996, the rebel group calling themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), kidnapped 139 schoolgirls from St. Mary’s College, a boarding school in Aboke, Uganda. Sister Rachel Fassera, a nun of the Comboni Order and teacher at St. Mary’s, followed the rebels into the bush, where she negotiated the release of all but 30 girls.

That same year, author Susan Minot traveled to Uganda, an experience described in the essay "This We Came to Know Afterward", which originally appeared in McSweeney’s and again later in The Best American Travel Writing, 2001. Thirty Girls is the culmination of Minot’s Ugandan experience, a fictionalized account of the 1996 kidnapping of the St. Mary’s College schoolgirls.

Thirty Girls departs from Minot’s earlier work, which focused on unavailable men and the WASP-y women who loved them. While unrequited desire has a role in Thirty Girls, it no longer holds the lead. Minot’s attention has snapped outward. Winnowing her crystalline prose to the bare minimum, Minot conveys a bleak message that many Westerners have preferred to ignore.

Sister Giulia, a teacher at St. Mary’s school, is asleep when the terrible banging begins. The LRA rebels are breaking down the student dormitory walls to reach the schoolgirls. They have set the school chapel afire; broken glass is everywhere. Sister Giulia dresses, rushing downstairs, but it’s too late: the rebels have grabbed the girls and gone. Suddenly a girl darts from hiding. The horror arrives in unadorned, declarative sentences: "Penelope had been raped as she tried to run across the grass and was caught near the swing. She was ten years old."

Sister Giulia and math teacher Thomas Bosco go into the bush, looking for the kidnapped girls. As morning dawns, the two find rebel leader Mariano Lagira and the 139 girls of St. Mary’s. A tense negotiation ensues, revealing Sister Giulia’s enormous courage and Lagira’s capricious nature. Sister Giulia is allowed to depart with all but 30 girls.

Here the narrative separates into three voices. Jane Wood is a white American writer. She has traveled to Africa to write about the abductions. A typical Minot character, Jane is emotionally damaged after a failed marriage, detached, close to nobody. She finds the African continent wonderful for its distance from home, its unfamiliarity, and its deep mystery: "Everything mercifully said, This is not home."

Upon arrival in Kenya, Jane stays with an acquaintance named Lana. A native Kenyan, Lana is a sexual raconteur whose nightly parties attract all sorts. Through her, Jane falls in with a group of rootless expatriates. The Algerian-French Pierre is a womanizing photographer. Don is the prototypical Ugly American, traveling through Africa after making a fortune and divorcing.

Of the group, Don is the most exacting, querulously demanding rigid plans and schedules. Harry O’Day is 22 and like Lana, a native white Kenyan. Harry supports his passion for paragliding with odd jobs. Even as he falls into bed with Jane, who is 20 years his senior, Harry refuses to be claimed. In this, he is the coolly withholding Minot male.

Esther Akello is one the 30 girls held captive by the LRA. Where Jane’s story is rendered in dreamy third person, Esther addresses readers directly, using stark, precise speech. Having escaped the rebels, Esther now resides at Uganda’s Kiryandongo Rehabilitation Center.

The LRA’s brutality has left Esther in a mental place which teeters between numbness and self-hatred. Holding herself apart, she refuses to participate in camp activities. She mulls over the violence done to her, and the atrocities the LRA forced her to perform. Even more agonizing than enduring rape was being forced, along with her schoolmates, to kill a girl who tried to escape. Esther and her classmates had to kill the girl or be killed themselves. She has no idea how to reconcile what happened with a return to civilian life. Now: "There is a person inside me who has been very bad and does not deserve a chance at life. "

Esther’s flighty Aunt Karen visits with terrible news. Esther’s beloved mother died of cancer during her daughter’s absence. A stilted visit from Esther’s father and siblings follows. The family is well aware of what happened during Esther’s abduction, of the violent acts she was forced to endure and perpetrate. Yet Esther is fortunate: other families refuse to visit their daughters, whom they consider "ruined". One mother, learning her captive daughter has been impregnated by a rebel, tells Jane: "I must not hate this child. This is hard for me. "

Jane’s concerns, including her growing sexual obsession with Harry, pale beside Esther’s narrative. Her road to documenting Uganda’s abducted children is, surprisingly, a leisurely one. Travel arrangements are haphazard, casual, subject to change. Those plans that finally do arrive at fruition often do so thanks to the black servants staffing most white African households. Colonialism’s legacy of racism is never overtly stated, however.

Rather, Minot conveys the disparity through descriptions of lavish meals prepared by black servants and served to oblivious white guests. When Lana holds a dinner party, she directs her housekeeper and another servant in Swahili. They cook and serve a meal of nine dishes and a dessert. As guests chatter, drink, and flirt: "The servants slipped in and out, clearing the plates, leaving glasses and candles and flowers, and a spotlessly washed-up kitchen."

Lana takes her friends to visit her sister, Beryl. Beryl lives in a fine home on a large property. As she welcomes the group in the foyer, Jane spots uniformed "dark-skinned people" hard at work in the kitchen. The group is served tea by two servants, one of whom is a child.

The third narrative is a series of second person interludes called "The You File". The You File isn’t a character. Rather, it's an amalgam of Jane and Esther’s thoughts, chanted in what reads like a Greek Chorus.

"You have gone away and new things steer you. Wind, hands. Some cruel, some kind. There is madness in the dark and madness in the morning with the smell of smoke."

Esther, meanwhile, slowly relays her abduction story. Each word is carefully considered, almost weighted. She uses contractions minimally. Beginning with her family, Esther describes her parents and siblings, the accident that left her father, who once provided for his household as a mechanic, in a wheelchair. She matter-of-factly explains the necessity of blood tests for AIDS, including her test results. She offers her version of events the day the girls were abducted and the days afterward.

A man named Greg Lotti chooses Esther as his "wife". She says he is better than most; he doesn’t beat her. Her friend Agnes isn’t so fortunate. She "got a bad one".

Jane, meanwhile, has not fallen in love with Harry, but into a state of sexual longing, which occupies much of her thinking. Harry has offered to drive Jane into Uganda, to Camp Kiryandongo. Lana, Don, and Pierre, having nothing better to do, so they tag along. The group stops in Kampala, where Jane interviews Helga, a university professor. A German woman in late middle age, Helga's specialty is trauma’s impact on children. Inside her home Jane, Pierre, and Harry are served tea by a beautiful young girl named Sunali. Helga is barely civil to her guests, focusing mostly on Sunali, whose braid she fondles while remarking: "Of course one is not allowed to say it, one mustn’t even believe that there’s little hope for them. But it’s true. "

Later Harry, usually laconically easygoing, observes that Helga was doing a form of child abduction herself.

In the Ugandan city of Lacor, Italian doctor Carlo Marciano invites the group to spend the night. Marciano is a widower since his wife, a fellow physician, contracted AIDS while removing shrapnel from an infected patient. The hospital they founded 40 years ago also serves as a refugee camp. The next morning Lana, Harry, Pierre, Jane, and Don tour the facility, an experience only Americans Jane and Don find unnerving.

Eventually Jane locates Grace Dollo, mother of the abducted Louise, founder of the parent group We Are Concerned. Through Grace, Jane meets the parents of other abducted girls. In a heartbreaking scene, the parents share their stories with Jane.

Grace leads the group to St. Mary’s College, where they meet Sister Giulia and a few of the rescued girls. Tension mounts as Jane’s group moves closer to Kiryandongo and Esther. Evidence of rebel activity is everywhere. Jane purchases fruit from young woman whose lips have been severed -- the LRA’s punishment for those suspected of informing.

Finally Jane and Esther meet. Initially Esther refuses to speak her. "Why say these things when I want to forget them?"

But Jane’s pale complexion reminds her of the kindly nuns at St. Mary’s. Esther reconsiders. She begins speaking. Her speech is quiet, rapid. Her story pours out. Jane listens. Pierre is videotaping; Jane need not bother with notes. Journalistic ethics are pushed aside. White woman and African girl connect.

The novel concludes with the Americans much changed. Jane stays in Kenya, keeping the subjects of her story nearby as she writes it. Don, wholly American in his embarrassing, annoying demands for unavailable comforts, reverses himself with an act of enormous generosity. In so doing, he redeems himself.

Those of us in comfortable circumstances should read books like Thirty Girls not only because they are art -- and Thirty Girls indisputably is art -- but because they shed light upon much of the wrongfulness that darkens our world. As such, Thirty Girls is a call to attention. In the Notes and Acknowledgments section of this book, Minot thanks Angelina Atyam, head of Concerned Parents Association In Uganda. It was through Atyam that Minot learned of Uganda’s abducted children. Indeed, at the beginning of Thirty Girls, Minot gives the scene to Jane, who hears Grace Dollo speak at a New York City dinner party. Jane is shocked by Grace’s story, and immediately decides to write about the children of Uganda. Another guest asks: "Do we know about this? "

We do now.


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