What I read:
A shocking human rights tragedy brought to light in a story of heartbreak and triumph.
Thirteen-year-old Habo has always been different— light eyes, yellow hair and white skin. Not the good brown skin his family has and not the white skin of tourists. Habo is strange and alone. His father, unable to accept Habo, abandons the family; his mother can scarcely look at him. His brothers are cruel and the other children never invite him to play. Only his sister Asu loves him well. But even Asu can’t take the sting away when the family is forced from their small Tanzanian village, and Habo knows he is to blame.
Seeking refuge in Mwanza, Habo and his family journey across the Serengeti. His aunt is glad to open her home until she sees Habo for the first time, and then she is only afraid. Suddenly, Habo has a new word for himself: Albino. But they hunt Albinos in Mwanza because Albino body parts are thought to bring good luck. And soon Habo is being hunted by a fearsome man with a machete.
To survive, Habo must not only run but find a way to love and accept himself.
What I envy:
Wow, this book was impressively unique. I have never read anything quite like it
However, what I admire most about this book is the way it was thoroughly researched, and the way that research naturally drove the story. Through most of my reading, I was convinced that Tara Sullivan had lived in Tanzania at some point, but it turns out she did not; she’s just that good.
In my current WIP I am using many words that my readers would be unlikely to understand while my characters would use them as easily as their own names. Therefore, I admired the way Sullivan employed words from an entirely unfamiliar language, often without defining them directly, in a way that was totally natural to both the reader and the characters. Though there is a glossary of Kiswahili words and phrases at the back of the book, I knew each one of them before I even realized it existed.
Sullivan also managed to set the stakes for her character in a way that was both natural for the reader and authentic to Habo. This is really a story of Habo being hunted. In Mwanza, where Habo’s aunt and cousins live, albinos are often murdered because their body parts are considered lucky. Of course, if Habo had grown up in Mwanza he would have known this always, and his fear would have been difficult to explain for the reader. While it didn’t feel like a device, I think it was a stroke of genius that Sullivan set the opening of the story elsewhere, allowing Habo’s aunt to explain to him, and to us, the dangers that Mwanza holds for a boy with Habo’s coloring
Really, though, this research served an even grander purpose than authenticity to the story. Because I cared about Habo, I cared that he could be killed with no repercussions in certain areas of the world. I hated that he had no access to glasses so his albinism severely hurt his chance to survive. I was outraged that he had been banished to the back of the classroom where someone with his eyesight would not stand a chance of learning to read. Sullivan’s research made me care deeply about an issue I had never heard of before learning about this book.
Photo credit: amazon, bbc