In the light of the recent and horrifying kidnapping of 200 young Nigerian girls, this book could not have been written at a more meaningful time. In 2002, a similar incident took place in Uganda when more than 100 girls were forcibly taken from their school in a rural area. Susan Minot had covered that story as a journalist and has now written a fictionalized account of it. Her seriously important book was published just before the Nigerian girls were taken. The Ugandan rebel who was responsible for the earlier kidnappings was Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army and he is still at large these many years later.
Minot alternates chapters in Thirty Girls telling two stories that are intertwined and dependent on each other in unifying the tale. The first is the fate of the the Ugandan girls who were led away into the bush. The school they attended was run by Catholic nuns, and on the night the school was attacked and broken into, there were four nuns and only one man on duty. The Ugandan army had been patrolling the school grounds but were off duty that night. The Mother Superior, Sister Giula, an Italian of great courage, along with a male teacher, wastes no time in setting out after the girls to try to negotiate their return. She catches up to the rebels and makes a plea to Captain Lagira, a terrifying creature. After much false politeness and fearsome threats, he agrees to let all the girls go except 30. The unfortunate Sr. Giula is told she must choose the girls that will stay behind. One of these girls is Ester Akello, and it is through her eyes that we learn the fate and the nightmare that follows for these girls. Ester's voice is so true and so real that we forget that this is a work of fiction as we become caught up in her story.
The other part of the book is about a reporter named Jane Wood who has come to Africa to write a story on the children who have survived the kidnapping ordeal by escaping. These children, and Ester is eventually one, are placed in a rehabilitation camp in order to help them re-enter a life as normal as possible given the circumstances. Jane became interested in their story when she meet the mother of one of the kidnapped girls at a New York dinner where the mother was seeking aid to help these abused children.
Jane arrives in Kenya and meets up with a free spirited friend who introduces her to a group of like minded friends. They all decide to travel to Uganda together so Jane can get her story. Along the way they make stops and find time to party a bit, adventure a bit, and drink a good deal. Jane finds herself drawn to Harry a young man about 15 years younger than she. She realizes it is a hopeless romance with no future, but she falls headlong into the relationship anyway. Minot writes sensitively and realistically about their affair. In all her books, Minot writes convincingly about human interactions and connections.
The climax of the book occurs when Ester and Jane's stories intersect. Several important actions result from their meeting. I loved this book. Even though it deals with a difficult subject that today we are reading about daily, Minot never wavers from handling the story with care and beautiful writing. I recommend this book most highly and have urged all my friends to read it. It is timely, and the story of the two women shows them brave and fearless in their emotions and sense of self. They finds themselves through the brief time they have together, and both recognize the connection. This book is a terrific choice for book clubs and all readers.