Burn My Heart by Beverley Naidoo
|Burn My Heart by Beverley Naidoo|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: A story of burning injustice and the shameful end to colonial rule in Kenya, told through the eyes of two small boys. Well-written and passionately told, it doesn't duck the issues. Recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 208||Date: July 2007|
|Publisher: Puffin Books|
It's the early 1950s. The Mau Mau rebellion is just beginning in colonial Kenya. The rebels will kill 32 white settlers. In crushing it, 55,000 British soldiers will kill at least 12,000 of the Kikuyu people and imprison another 150,000. Yet another 1,120 Kikuyu will be sentenced to death by the courts. About 1,800 Kikuyu will be murdered for being loyalists to the colonial regime. It will be more than ten years of bloodshed before Kenya finally passes to majority rule.
Mathew is the slightly spoiled but well-meaning son of the bwana. Mugo is the bwana's kitchen boy. Mugo's father is the bwana's most trusted employee and head stock man. Before the white settlers came, Mugo's ancestors owned the very land which the bwana owns today. Like their fathers before them, Mathew and Mugo are friends. The friendship isn't an equal one - Mugo is, of course, the whipping boy - but nevertheless, it's an honest friendship with strong ties of shared experience.
But times are unsettled. No-one knows who to trust. The Kikuyu's secret society, the Mau Mau are forcibly recruiting in secret. There's no escaping the oath for any Kikuyu - refusing to take it results in a beating by the terrorists; it could even mean death. The rich white farmers are prepared to crush the uprising at any cost and are prepared to imprison, torture and even execute the Kikuyu workers they grew up with as boys on the flimisiest of evidence. Mugo and his father are walking a tightrope, caught between the most dangerous of rocks and hard places. And all Mathew can do is look on in fear and confusion.
Beverley Naidoo's book takes the reader straight into 1951, just as the rebellion is beginning to gather pace. The narrative alternates from Mathew to Mugo and as their world begins to crumble. Forced to grow up in a hurry, they both discover that even the most authoritative of adults - parents, policeman, teachers - cannot always be trusted and do not always act with honour. This is a difficult enough discovery at the best of times, but when it comes with this kind of violence attached, it's more shocking than either could have imagined.
It's beautifully written, in sparse but evocative prose, just as you'd expect from this seasoned author of politics for children. Naidoo writes with brutal honesty and gets straight to the heart of the matter. She doesn't duck even the most difficult of subjects and she has a knack for fitting in complex ideas and sophisticated ethical situations into a simple story about two familiar children. Internally, Mathew and Mugo could be any children, any where, at any time. Only external events differentiate them from their readers.
Children don't like to beat around the bush. They don't want to read hundreds of pages of earnest moralising. They want someone to get straight to the heart of the matter. Then they want to be left alone to make up their own minds. Few authors writing for children at the late primary and early secondary level have the confidence to manage this, and Naidoo is one of the few. She renders a story of horror and tragedy in Burn My Heart but somehow manages to make it an inspirational one too. If we are not to continue the mistakes of our past - as current events tell us we seem intent on doing - we need our children to be reading books like this.
My thanks to the good people at Puffin for sending the book.
The serious young reader might also enjoy Elizabeth Laird's Oranges In No Man's Land about the Lebanese civil war.
Burn My Heart by Beverley Naidoo is in the Top Ten Children's Books About Weighty Subjects.
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