The Good Braider
Genre: Historical Fiction, Novel-in-Verse
Viola, a fifteen-year-old girl from the city of Juba in Sudan, has never lived in a world at peace. Her entire life she’s watched the men get taken away and become soldiers while the women and children left behind are murdered—or worse. Still, she listens to her mother and grandmother’s lessons, learning how to cook, clean, carry water, and braid hair. With these skills she knows she will fetch a high bride price and bring honor to her family.
But after a soldier catchers her alone one day, Viola and her family know they can no longer risk staying in Juba. They escape to Cairo and eventually find themselves living in tiny apartment in Maine. Soon, Viola finds herself pulled in a dozen different directions at once: between her Sudanese past and American present, tradition and modernism, and dreams of home and dreams of freedom.
Farish did several things well in this book. She sets up the world so we, the readers, can see it through Viola’s eyes. Despite her age Viola doesn’t understand exactly why there’s a war, only that there is a war and any tiny mistake could mean death. This tension builds throughout the first third of the book, but never entirely disappears. Farish allows us to feel her narrator’s guilt, fear, and shame, but also her hopes and dreams for a better future. The voice and characterization are so strong that I was surprised to discover that this isn’t a memoir.
Additionally, despite this book being written in first-person, Viola’s mother’s emotions come through almost as strongly as Viola’s own. The reader can feel her grief at her losses, her frustration as Viola begins to adopt American attitudes and cultural behaviors, and her desperation to remain true to her roots. It’s written with power, care, and a genuine respect, a feat that isn’t easy when the mother isn’t always a protagonist.
Farish’s descriptions lend themselves easily to mental pictures, which I appreciated, since I’m not 100% familiar with the geography of the region. There’s one passage in particular where Viola is contrasting the dust of Cairo with the softer dust of Juba. It’s such a simple observation, but anyone who has been homesick for a place they love will recognize the longing in those lines.
That being said, not quite everything Farish attempts works here. The book itself covers about four years of time, but often feels like no time at all has passed. She tells us things like “two years later” and uses other transitions like that, but it doesn’t feel like any time at all has gone by because nothing’s actually happens. Not really. Viola gets older, but she doesn’t seem to grow any more mature as a character. Viola’s mother’s grief doesn’t seem to dull until one day they’re leaving Cairo and suddenly it’s all perfect and healed. This aspect makes the book hard to follow.
Similar to this problem, as the book progresses we are told more things that were shown. We’re told Viola’s friends behave in a certain way rather than read about them exhibiting those behaviors. We’re told that she feels scared instead of seeing her behave like a frightened person might. Given her past, a reader wouldn’t necessarily expect her to shake and crumple and cry, but her heart might at the very least speed up a little. That lack of detail was not only disappointing, but it jarred me from the story.
In particular, the final third felt rushed. As I read it I wondered if there might have originally been more to it that got cut in the editing process. If so, I hope Farish picks up those pieces and writes a sequel or companion novel for The Good Braider.
The characterization and descriptions outshine everything else in this tragic yet uplifting novel-in-verse.
- Understanding and exploring immigration issues
- People who work with survivors of war
- Discussing refugees
- Death: characters die in the book
- Deceit: characters trick one another throughout
- Lying: characters lie to protect one another
- Physical Abuse: a character is physically abused
- Prejudice: characters are prejudiced against other races and cultures
- Rape: mention of characters being raped; one character is actually raped during the story, but it is not told in an explicit way
- Religion: the war is between Christians and Muslims; characters pray; faith is important to the main characters
- Superiority: characters with certain traits/conditions are seen as superior to those without
- Swearing: one or two instances of inappropriate language
- Violence: some characters are physically violent
- War: the harsh realities of war are shown and discussed
- Weapon Use: characters are shot and killed
- Change vs. Tradition
- Growing Up
- Right vs. Wrong
|Exploration of Conflict||2|
|Consideration of Themes||2|
|Suspension of Disbelief||2|
|Imagery and Description||2|
|Rhythm and Pace of Book||1|
|Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation)||2|