The Good Braider by Terry Farish. Marshall Cavendish, 2012. Currently available.
Genre: YA Realistic Fiction/Poetry
Face Value: Although this cover is doing the “faceless girl” thing that I typically find distasteful, it’s actually not too bad. The story focuses on the role that hair and the braiding of hair plays in the culture of Sudanese women, so a beautiful head full of braids is a fitting cover picture. I see how it could have been difficult to picture the girl’s face, because what facial expression could she possibly have to capture the essence of this story? Hope? Despair? Exhaustion? Perhaps it is best to leave Viola’s face to our imaginations.
Does it break the slate? Most certainly. The Good Braider is the story of Viola, a young Sudanese woman who fights past horrific circumstances and huge obstacles to live in safety in the United States. And although the book recognizes that Viola has more opportunities for education in the US, it does not glorify American culture. Farish weaves in the cultural clash that immigrants experience and highlights the ways in which young refugees sometimes have to compromise their cultural values in order to fit in among their US peers.
Who would we give it to? This book is accessible for any pre-teen or teen reader. It paints a picture of the refugee experience in the United States, and I think everyone could learn something from this book. It would be especially relevant for young readers living in cities with a large population of Sudanese refugees.
Review: We are constantly told to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” but that’s a very hard thing to do. Our own cultural background, upbringing, and privileges make it difficult to truly understand another person’s lived experience. In my case, the best way for me to learn about different cultures has been having open and honest conversations with others, learning about their lives and sharing mine. But what happens when you don’t have access to a diverse range of people from a background different than your own? Well, you can always read. As someone who grew up in a small, culturally homogeneous town, reading about many different people and cultures was the primary way I learned about the world outside of my home.
The Good Braider is one of those books that can bring a reader closer to understanding a life very different from his or her own. Author Terry Farish wrote this book about a young female Sudanese refugee, based on her work recording oral histories of refugees and working with immigrants through the New Hampshire Humanities Council. Viola, the character Farish has created, is a shining star. She is bright and resilient despite the atrocities she has witnessed…and even experienced herself.
Farish does not shy away from including the dark and awful realities of warfare for women and children – abuse, intimidation, starvation, and rape – but she does so in language that is poetic and accessible to young readers, rather than graphic. And throughout these experiences, Viola proves to be a tremendous Slatebreaker. She is frightened and intimidated by the obstacles facing her, but she continues to be the backbone of her family as they escape Sudan.
Once her family arrives in the United States, Viola encounters new challenges. Her mother clings to tradition, including gender role expectations for young women. Although Viola is intelligent and capable of pursuing higher education leading to a career, her mother is wary of the way women dress and act in American culture. Viola carefully balances her academics with her familial responsibilities. She respects the traditions of her culture while pushing ahead in making new opportunities for herself. Viola also finds ways to reconnect with the bittersweet memories she has of her life in Sudan. Braiding the hair of her friends and loved ones allows her to cherish that background while trying to survive in her new environment.
The Good Braider is a beautiful narrative of a girl who has encountered a rollercoaster of life experiences. Although it is fictional, it is a powerful glimpse into what it may be like to be a refugee living in the United States. Viola is a Slatebreaking example for any young woman who is finding it difficult to navigate parental expectations and the ever-changing opportunities for young women in our culture.
Reviewed from library copy.