Orphaned Mor is a little concerned when he starts hearing the voice of his deceased father and seeing visions of his deceased mother, but he’s got bigger worries. His paternal aunt wants to take him and his two sisters away from their village and separate them, but she’s given him just three months to prove he can care for them all. Unfortunately, the Danka Boys also have their eye on him and will stop at nothing to get him to give up his family and join their gang.
I saw this book while compiling my first diverse middle grade fantasy novel list – the synopsis caught my eye but I mistakenly assumed the author was white. When later reading a review for The Magic of Changing Your Stars, the reviewer mentioned that it was ownvoices so I gave Henderson a second look, thankfully! True, this book is light on fantasy, with only one fantastical element, but that aspect is strongly present throughout and the book as a whole is gripping.
This is part of a larger trend I’ve been noticing within YA, which is to take a single fantastical element (seeing the future, time travel, superpowers, ghosts, etc.) and use it to tell an otherwise contemporary story. Henderson was the first author I’ve noticed applying this to MG, and she does it very well. The fantastical element adds interest while Mor’s struggle to survive and keep his family together drives the plot.
The is applied in a slightly different way than the magical realism of When You Trap a Tiger or the gradually building suspense about the magic in On These Magic Shores, which is why I compare it to YA titles rather than other MG. Other than a few moments when Mor recognizes that others may not believe him, this communication with the dead is never questioned, but there is no dreamlike quality to the magic either. It doesn’t read as an extended metaphor but rather as a fact of his life, as solid and real as the fish they’ll eat for dinner (if the Danka Boys don’t steal it first).
The more moving journey, however, is Mor’s movement in fits and starts towards maturity. While the contact with his deceased parents does not read like a metaphor, his soccer playing certainly does. Initially Mor, like many young boys, is consumed with soccer to the point of forgetting or losing things and time important to his livelihood in order to play soccer. Over time, he recognizes that the sport is too great a temptation and begins to distance himself and focus more on other pursuits.
Then the Dinka Boys suck him back in with very negative soccer experiences. (Rest of this paragraph contains a spoiler.) Near the end, when Demba sends him to go play soccer with his old friends, we see both a satisfying growth and a full circle of this metaphor. Mor now is able to shoulder considerable responsibility and is mature enough not to shirk work for a game, but also has finally reached a state of security and won enough time and protection that he can play without hurting his family.
This book is technically historical fantasy set in the early 2010s. However, for readers not familiar with Senegal or rural life, the time period is not likely to be noticeable until mentioned in the author’s note.
This book was covered by Africa Access Review, although the coverage is a bit confusing. The review is three stars and praises the writing and a few elements of the representation while noting “There are many subtle mistakes that would not go unnoticed to a reader from Senegal” and eventually concluding “Overall, the novel should appeal to readers who are looking to have an elementary understanding of Senegalese culture.” Those don’t seem like criteria for a great African read, but it is a CABA Notable book and was included in their 2019 Read Africa list.
This made me wonder – is the book just so good that the writing overrode the errors in consideration, or is it that there are so few decent books about Africa published, that a well written and not offensive one is an award winner even if it makes significant cultural errors? Honestly, either could be true, and I am not well enough informed on either Senegal or the backstory behind CABA selections to determine which applies here. With my elementary understanding of Senegalese culture, both book and review were informative.
I greatly enjoyed this, recommend it, and am looking forward to reading Henderson’s next books.