In Uganda, early one morning in October 1996, 139 Catholic schoolgirls were kidnapped from their dorm at gunpoint by the Lord’s Resistance Army — Joseph Kony’s rebel group, famous for its child soldiers and brutalities such as cutting off the lips of those who betray them. A nun resolutely trails after them, managing to bargain for the release of 109, leaving 30 girls in slavery to Kony’s army.
“Thirty Girls,’’ the newest novel by Susan Minot — author of “Monkeys’’ and “Evening’’ — is inspired by this event and examines its impact on the girls’ lives. The book pulls you in from the first page, interweaving the narrative of Esther Akello (one of the kidnapped students struggling to survive) and Jane Wood (an American journalist who is definitely not struggling, at least not in the physical sense).
Jane travels through the bush to Uganda a year after the kidnapping to interview some of the 30 children who had been enslaved and escaped. She begins in Kenya, staying with privileged young friends — almost all of them white ex-pats— who have so much time on their hands they decide to travel along with her. The group visits friends and family along the way, most of whom live in easy luxury, eating fine meals at large tables whimsically decorated and crowded with guests. Servants are sometimes glimpsed in the background.
Along the way, Jane becomes involved with Harry, a much younger man. The scenes of falling in love, of feeling alive and emotionally at risk, are clear and searing. At one point when swimming, “Jane and Harry exchanged a glance, heads above the surface. She dove underwater and held the glance with her as if it had entered a vein.”
Minot packs the danger, joy, and physical thrill tightly into a single image — Jane is aware she is falling in love and he might not be — using the analogy of traveling faster and faster in a jostling unstable train. “The slow chugging of the engine was her body coming alive again. As the speed increased, possibilities of the trip expanded.”
The scenes of love and plenty contrast sharply with Esther’s chapters.
Fifteen-year-old Esther lives in a different Africa. In the first few days after the kidnapping, walking endlessly through the bush, fed very little by the rebels, her group is forced to club to death a girl she knows who tried to escape.
“If you do not do this, instead we will kill you, says Sunglasses. All of you . . . I do not want to hit the girl, none of us wants to hit her. But we are not allowed the choice . . . My gaze looks at what is happening, but a small gate in my brain makes the space and I leave through it . . . The hands holding my stick are no longer mine.”
Esther is repeatedly raped by a much older man who is called her husband. She is forced to attack a village in which some of her family lives. Her best friend dies and is left to rot on the ground. “She lay facedown with her arms and legs out at angles and dirt creased in her red shirt. These arms and hands of Agnes’s, I thought, they had held me. Her face was sideways to us with eyelids so swollen it did not look like her face.”
Like Jane, Esther also longs for the man she is in love with, but in her case she has no chance to be with him. The writing about Esther is short and sharp — imagine Hemingway describing scenes of horror. Throughout her year in captivity, she struggles to stay human and protect her friends, nursing her memories of past happiness like “twigs” in her hand.
At first this juxtaposition is extremely uncomfortable as if scenes from Club Med were intercut with life in a concentration camp. However the details are rendered with empathy, and both main characters occupied honorably in their struggles. It forces the reader to consider how much luck fashions the basic architecture of our lives. And how, despite all the vast differences in that architecture, what we strive for is remarkably the same.
When Esther and Jane finally meet — once Jane and her group reach the camp where escaped child soldiers are kept until they acclimate to a life of freedom — the result is disappointing and veers toward the saccharine. Esther recounts her experiences, and Jane gives her a necklace that was a gift from her sister.
Afterward, Esther thinks of Jane and Harry fondly. “I remember the lady from America and the journalists who were here. I remember they had been our friends.” Immediately afterward she also starts for the first time to draw pictures and play soccer, acting again like a child.
However this is a small problem in a book that looks hard at trauma, love, and humanity, that contemplates the wide potential spectrum of life, concluding perhaps that life is not competition between us, but instead a struggle within each of us for whatever “twigs” of love and happiness we can manage, no matter what the context.