Friday, July 29, 2011

The Butterfly Heart by Paula Leyden

Paula Leyden writes on her website: "I decided to write The Butterfly Heart for many reasons – but the initial idea came to me through a memory that has haunted me. While I was at primary school in Zambia, a school friend of mine was taken out of school and married off to an old man. At the time, this upset me deeply, and I felt helpless to do anything about it. So, in some ways, I wrote the story for her, and for young girls in many parts of the world that this has happened to and continues to happen to. These children, and they are children, are robbed of their childhoods, condemned to a world of pain, premature childbirth, HIV/AIDS, and death. This is not something that should happen to anyone, anywhere, ever."

Paula’s book reminded me of something I had forgotten. Growing up in Canada, I knew a girl who was taken out of school and sent away to marry someone when she was only 14. I had no concept of what it meant for her. All I knew was that she had disappeared out of my life completely.

You might wonder how in the world someone can take such a difficult and serious subject as child marriage and write a palatable story suitable for kids to read. The Butterfly Heart is a warm and engaging story, and I was drawn in from the first page. The book opens with: “My friend Winifred didn’t put her hand up today. Not once.” From those two sentences, I knew that Bul-Boo was thoughtful and observant, and that Winifred was not acting like her normal self.

I was worried I might find the world in the story too exotic and different for me to relate to, but Paula has done a fine job of creating an accessible, fond portrait of Zambia, its culture, and its people. I very quickly grew to care about Bul-Boo and her outgoing twin sister Madillo, their friends and family, and mysterious Ifwafwa, the snake man.

There is a gentle humour throughout the story, especially in the school scenes featuring Sister Leonisa’s rather unique teaching methods. Paula weaves traditional Zambian folklore into her tale, and there’s a whiff of magic in the air.

I was a little concerned that Paula might be breaking one of the golden rules of writing for children: get the grownups out of the way and let the kids solve the problem on their own. But what I found was that because I learned something of Ifwafwa’s childhood, his joys, sorrows, and fears, he seemed more vulnerable and childlike and not the all-powerful adult. And while Bul-Boo has asked for help, the children are actively trying to fix things themselves. The resolution is not what I expected, and it works wonderfully. So the golden rule may have bent a little, but it is still intact.

Paula has a second book being published by Walker and is writing a follow-up to The Butterfly Heart, and I am looking forward to both!

Monday, July 11, 2011

My Africa

This was supposed to be a review of Paula Leyden’s book, The Butterfly Heart, but in doing the research for it, I realized I needed to write about my own tentative connection to Africa first.
I read a ton of books as a kid, but I could not tell you a single title of an African-set story now, other than the Tarzan of the Apes adventures. I was rather fond of Cheetah, but I don’t think I fell in love with the idea of Africa until later.
When I was a bit older, I read The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood by Elspeth Huxley. My brother would argue that my “obsession with Hayley Mills”, as he calls it, is what got me interested in the TV series, which led me to the book.
By the time I was a teen and then a young adult, I loved the romance of colonial Europeans living in mysterious, wild Africa – young Elspeth made friends with local Kikuyus, Karen Blixen ran a farm, Beryl Markham flew her bi-plane into the bush to rescue stranded men, and life seemed one great adventure.
My impression of Africa was woefully out of date and unrealistic, to say the least.
So then I listened to the radio, read the news online, and had discussions with people about all the bad stuff going on. I read The Constant Gardener and watched the film. I read countless other books and watched movies and TV shows set in various contemporary African countries, some dark and doomed, some lighter.
To tell you the truth, I’m a bit scared of the “real” Africa, the one with poisonous snakes, dangerous men, genital mutilation of women, warlords and despots, pirates, drought, starvation, and HIV/AIDS. There is no adventure to be found here, no romance, no joy.
You’ll probably kill me for admitting that I like Alexander McCall Smith’s series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I was at a writing event a number of years ago, which featured African authors writing about life in each of their countries, and the very serious author of something very heavy and depressing BUT LITERARY (apparently) sneered at my chirpy admission.
I am well aware that McCall Smith’s books are not a realistic portrayal of Botswana, and they are being written by a white guy from Scotland. But, while they are lightweight and ultimately upbeat mysteries, they  also feature African women with heart, character, and humour.
McCall Smith on his website says: “I thought…that it was a great pity that there are so many negative books and articles about Africa. I wanted to show readers in the rest of the world that there are many great and remarkable people living in southern Africa – people who lead good lives, with honour and integrity…This is not to say that there are not many problems in that part of the world – there are. But the problems are only one side of the story – there is another, more positive side.”
I think that’s what I’m looking for, that other positive Africa, that shows real people living real lives and dealing with real issues, but written as a celebration, that embraces the joy of life. That’s why I read Paula Leyden’s book, The Butterfly Heart, which is set in Zambia. I’ll review it in a follow-up blog.
Eventually, I will travel to Africa and experience it for myself. For now, I rely on the authors of good books to gently enlighten me.