In the summer of 2011, a small group of young people from my church went to northern Zambia to help out for a month at Kazembe Orphanage there. Two of the girls who went were only thirteen years old at the time. While they were there, a new baby was brought to the orphanage. The baby, Jessie, was very sick, as many of the orphans brought to Kazembe Orphanage are. These girls helped care for Jessie, held her at night, tried to feed her, prayed for her . . . and mourned her when she finally died.
It was a difficult experience for the girls from our church, but it’s one that is all too common in southern African countries like Zambia and Malawi. Laugh with the Moon by Shana Burg is set in Malawi, and I admire the author for not being afraid to portray the suffering and tragedy that often characterizes life for children in rural areas of southern Africa in particular. As I read Laugh with the Moon, I wondered if the conditions and possible tribulations of life in an African would be “sanitized” for the consumption of young American teens, but they weren’t. The book includes sickness, orphans, poor living conditions, malnutrition, deprivation, and even death.
And yet, there is hope. Thirteen year old Clare Silver comes, against her will, to Malawi with her doctor father. Both of them are still grieving the death of Clare’s mother, and Clare is not sure she can survive yet another disruption in her life. Dad, on the other hand, is looking for comfort and distraction, and he refuses to “listen” to Clare’s silent protest except to tell her to “cut it out, already.”
Then, Clare meets Memory, a village girl who has lost both of her parents. The book never tells how Memory’s parents died, but the implication is that death is so common in rural Malawi that it’s not even especially significant how they died. Clare and Memory become friends. Clare attends the village school, imagines her mother’s voice counseling her, and slowly comes to understand that “grief isn’t a tunnel you walk through and you’re done. It waxes and wanes like the moon.”
I love books set in other, foreign-to-me, countries and cultures, especially Africa. I don’t know why, except that I feel as if we can learn from one another if we can only begin to understand how God made us all individual and unique and yet able to communicate and understand across and through time and culture. I sound like an advertisement for cultural diversity curriculum, but I really do believe that all peoples, all cultures have aspects and artifacts that God wants to redeem and use to enrich us all with all the, yes, diversity, that He has made. Anyway, Laugh with the Moon is a sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes educational, always fascinating look into the life of children in rural Malawi.
It’s a story I’m going to recommend to those girls who encountered death and suffering in rural Zambia a couple of summers ago. They’re planning to go back in 2013.
Laugh with the Moon is eligible to be nominated for the 2012 Cybils Awards in the category of Middle Grade Fiction. Nominations open on October 1, 2012.