nonfiction

Rabbit-Proof Fence: The True Story of One of the Greatest Escapes of All Time- Doris Pilkington

Oh, Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge, I’m getting SO close to finishing you!

Task #8 is an #ownvoices book set in Oceania, which comprises the areas of Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. My libraries didn’t have much in the way of what Book Riot suggested, but with a little digging, I discovered they did have a copy of Rabbit-Proof Fence: The True Story of One of the Greatest Escapes of All Time by Doris Pilkington (Hyperion Books, 2002). It qualifies as #ownvoices because Ms. Pilkington was born Nugi Garimara, an Aboriginal Australian whose mother, Molly Craig, is one of the girls she portrays in this book.

I will admit that I know very little about the Aboriginal community of Australia, other than, much like the Native population of the United States, they’ve been treated terribly (one of the books I read in the past few years contained the phrase, “Colonization is violence,” and it’s something I’ve never forgotten). Rabbit-Proof Fence highlights exactly how terribly, beginning with a few stories of the native community of western Australia before the white men show up, and then revealing how much the Aboriginals’ lives changed once these white men began to force them off the land their people had lived on for thousands of years. There are content warnings that go along with this early part; rape and murder are, tragically, part of every story of colonization.

Molly, who would one day become the author’s mother, is known as a half-caste, the daughter of an Aboriginal woman and a white man. She, along with her two half-caste cousins, Daisy and Gracie, are forcibly taken from their families and sent to an institution for Aboriginal children with white fathers. This was done at the Australian government’s behest because it was their belief that half-caste children were more intelligent than full-blooded Aboriginal children, and, as Molly’s paperwork stated, they hoped that ‘they will grow up with a better outlook on life than back at their camp.’ (Similar horrors were perpetrated upon the Native children of America and Canada, if you’re looking to enrage yourself further.) The three cousins, along with a fourth girl named Rosie, are taken to the East Perth Girls Home at the Moore River Native Settlement. Upon arrival, they’re expecting a school but are instead greeted by a bleak, overcrowded dormitory where the doors are chained, the windows have bars, the beds only have sheets when important visitors tour the facilities, and there are small cells where children who break the rules are locked in, sometimes for weeks at a time, after being whipped.

Monstrous.

Molly, the eldest, makes up her mind immediately that she and her cousins aren’t staying. Having been trained in bushcraft and survival skills by her stepfather, Molly leads the girls out the next morning, and for the next nine weeks, they make a barefoot journey that spans 1600 km (994 miles), following the fence built by the colonizers to try to prevent the spread of rabbits (that the colonizers themselves brought in, because there’s seriously no end to the problems caused by people arrogant enough to claim someone else’s land as their own). They sleep in rabbit warrens and out in the elements, eating rabbit, emu chicks, baby cockatoos, and a feral cat along the way, occasionally stopping by a farmhouse to beg for a decent meal. Barely managing to evade the authorities, the girls return home (without Gracie, who left to find her mother before reaching the end), but their stories have no happy endings. Colonization is violence. Never forget that.

God, this story is utter tragedy. Tragedy in what was lost, tragedy in what could have been lost, tragedy in that none of this story needed to occur because the girls’ families should have been left alone to live their lives. There’s a heartbreaking write-up where Ms. Pilkington details how the girls fared as they grew into adults. Daisy is the only one with a halfway happy story; Molly and Ms. Pilkington’s own lives continued to be marred by the brutal policies of the white men long after Molly returned home. So much heartbreak forced onto people who didn’t deserve it. So much pointless heartbreak.

Despite the sorrow that infects every page of this book, I did enjoy the experience of reading it. Ms. Pilkington describes the customs and lives of her people with such love that it’s impossible not to be drawn in and want to know more. The girls’s dialogue is peppered with phrases from their Mardu language (there’s a glossary in back!), and having only seen Aboriginal Australian language in print a few times before this, I was fascinated. The mixture of strength and desperation that the girls must have felt in order to undertake such a journey is impossible for me to begin to fathom; even thinking about it makes me want to throw things. There’s seriously no limit to the horror that humans are eager to inflict upon one another, and it disgusts me that so many people continue to defend these kinds of policies.

A movie was made from this book in 2002; my library has a copy, so I may grab it this week when I return the book. Rabbit-Proof Fence is a short book, but it packs a punch. Don’t let that stop you; the story of these girls and all peoples native to Australia need to be heard.

Doris Pilkington, born Nugi Garimara, passed away in 2014.

nonfiction

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World- Sarah Weinman

I think it was around 2008 that I read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, maybe 2007. I’d been going through a classics streak and trying to get through all those books I should have read but never got around too, and I plowed through the book during the last days of a run of the flu (actual influenza, with fever and body aches, the whole nine yards. YUCK. Also, don’t judge my reading choices when I’m ill…). It was…a creeptastic book, that was for sure. Humbert Humbert is a jarring narrator and Nabokov did an amazing job at absolutely making my skin crawl with how awful Humbert is. And at the time, I had absolutely no idea that much of the story parallels a real life case, one that Nabokov absolutely knew of, because it’s referenced right there in his novel. I learned of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman from an episode of All the Books! the other night, and I actually sat up out of bed to put in on my Goodreads TBR list, thinking it sounded fascinating and figured I’d get to it sometime in the murky, distant future. Imagine my surprise when I came across this at the library the next evening before book group! I literally gasped and marched it right to the checkout.

Sally Horner was 11 years old, in the midst of stealing a five-cent notebook from a drugstore in 1948, when Frank La Salle, pretending to be an FBI agent, stopped her and told her he wouldn’t turn her in and send her to a reformatory school if she would report to him. Fearful of her single, overworked mother finding out she’d been stealing to impress some girls at school, Sally agreed. She didn’t see him again for months, but when he reappeared, he meant business. Before Elizabeth Smart, before Jaycee Dugard, before the scores of women and children that have made headlines for the horrors they’ve suffered, there was Sally Horner, abducted at age 11 by Frank La Salle, who held her captive and raped her for twenty-one months.

There are obvious content warnings in this book for rape and child molestation (and not just Sally), along with a description of a mass shooting. Just like in Lolita, Frank takes Sally on a cross-country journey, far from her native Camden, New Jersey; from Atlantic City to Baltimore, onward to Dallas, and finally San Jose, he forces her to pose as his daughter. It’s not until she trusts a neighbor enough to answer her questions truthfully that she’s able to ask for help. Sally returns home just shy of her thirteenth birthday, having spent close to two years being held by her rapist. Unfortunately, the tragedy doesn’t end there. After her return, Sally lives for only two more years.

Mingled with the recounting of Sally Horner’s far too short life is the story of how Nabokov wrote Lolita, how older male predators were a theme he explored throughout his literary career, how he struggled to tell the story he wanted. Sally wasn’t his inspiration; he’d been working on the novel for years before her disappearance and eventual return made headline news across the country, but the details of what happened to her did seem to inspire him to be able to pull the whole story together. Even in the screenplays he wrote (which were ultimately mostly rewritten by director Stanley Kubrick, although Nabokov still received credit, along with the Oscar nomination) made allusions to the case, making his denials of shaping the story around the Horner case seem facetious at best.

This is one of those stories that I can’t believe hasn’t been better known until now (and it makes me wonder what other books exist that are heavily based on real-life cases and the general public isn’t aware of it. Can that even be done anymore?) Although far too many people misinterpret it, Lolita is a cultural phenomenon at this point; even if you haven’t read it, odds are you’ve at least heard of it and have a vague idea of what it’s about. That this could stay so far out of the mainstream that even Sally Horner’s family had no idea of the connection until a family member read the brief Wikipedia entry on Sally is utterly flooring to me.

Ms. Weinman mentions several times throughout the book how difficult this story was to research: practically everyone connected to the story has since passed away, records, both official and non-, weren’t saved or maintained. and even the places where the story took place (such as Sally’s hometown of Camden, NJ) have disappeared or undergone such great changes that they would be unrecognizable to someone from Sally’s day. Hearing something like that from the author made me enjoy the book all the more, because I’ve often thought that researching a nonfiction book must be an incredibly daunting task. It was kind of cool to hear that, at least in this case, my suspicions were correct.

The Real Lolita is the book where the literary biography meets true crime. Even if you’ve never read Vladimir Nabokov’s best-known work, this would still be a great read, and if you’re into true crime, this is definitely right up your alley. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up!

Check out Sarah Weinman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


nonfiction

The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq- Dunya Mikhail

Another pick from Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge! This time, the task was to read a translated book written and/or translated by a woman, and what was available at my libraries from the list was The Beekeeper: Rescuining the Stolen Women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail. Don’t be fooled by this book: it’s a slim tome, coming in at just over 200 pages, but every page is a punch in the gut.

Iraqi-born poet and journalist Dunya Mikhail fled Iraq after facing increasing threats in the mid-90’s. The Beekeeper is a collection of first-person narratives of Yazidi women who were kidnapped by Daesh (also known as ISIS) and forced to become sex slaves for them. An unlikely hero emerges, a beekeeper named Abdullah Shrem. He can’t sit idly by and watch his neighbors, his fellow countrymen and women, continue to suffer, and so he begins an informal operation designed to retrieve these women by any means necessary. His cellphone always on hand, Abdullah is ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice in order to secure freedom those enslaved and tortured by Daesh.

This book needs ALL the content warnings. Rape and violence of every type abound, including mass killings, people being buried alive and being forced to dig their own graves, and parents being forced to watch their children slaughtered in front of them as punishment (there are pictures of the wrapped bodies of these dead children in the book). It’s as brutal as any book about the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide, so be aware of that if you’re not in a good place to read about the absolute worst kind of suffering that man can inflict upon their fellow human beings.

‘You won’t find a single family here who hasn’t had someone disappear,’ someone says near the beginning of the book, a remark that I found heartbreaking and infuriating. This is one of those books that deserves to be read simply because we need to be a witness to the suffering of the survivors and be aware that this has gone on and is still going on. Thousands of women remain in captivity; some have returned only to find their entire families have been slaughtered. Others haven’t returned at all. These are human rights violations of the highest order, and I feel it’s incredibly important to bear witness to their stories.

It feels like I’ve been reading a LOT of really heavy stuff lately. I’m about ready to go on a Christina Lauren binge just to get some happy, fun material in my life to break up the heaviness of human atrocities that have filled my reading list recently. I’ve got a few more library books and a few review books, and then I may just do that…

Visit Dunya Mikhail’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body- Roxane Gay (Book Review)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay is another amazing book I picked up thanks to Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge. I’m absolutely in love with all the new authors I’ve been discovering thanks to this challenge and I’m so glad I finally got past my fear and decided to participate.

First off, this book needs a few trigger warnings. If you struggle reading about rape and disordered eating, this is not the book for you. Be kind to yourself and choose a book that will better serve your mental health and wellness, or read this with plenty of support lined up, because this memoir is brutally honest, a raw, painful read that still manages to contain great beauty while presenting the world with the author’s open wounds.

Roxane Gay is supermorbidly obese, a condition she directly attributes to being gang-raped at the age of 12. Even writing that sentence, I have to stop, take a breath, elbow away the anger and sadness that reading her story made me feel. Because of the horrors perpetrated on her that day, she began to eat in an attempt to both make her body feel safe again, and to take back some sort of control over her body. And because she couldn’t tell anyone what had happened to her, this left her family baffled by the changes and constantly making suggestions as to what she could do in order to make her body socially acceptable once more. Despite her frustration with her family’s ‘help’, Ms. Gay understands that it comes from a place of love and knows that she’s lucky to have the support system she does.

This is a memoir of what it’s like to take up space in a way that’s not accepted by society: the constant hurtful comments, the fears of whether any given place will be able to accommodate someone of her size, the difficulties of maneuvering a body hundreds of pounds heavier than average. Beyond her size, Ms. Gay is a person, one who suffers deeply with every breath she takes because of what was taken from her by that group of teenage boys, but because of what the world sees, she’s relegated to being only a fat person and nothing more. Her pain is palpable, exuding from every page in a stinging wallop that will leave you teary-eyed and wondering why on earth humans need to be so cruel to each other.

This is by no means an easy read, but it’s helped along by the beauty of Ms. Gay’s straightforwardness. Blunt, concise, and to-the-point, she never minces words and confronts you head-on with her grief, asking only for understanding, for acceptance, for love. Hunger will open your eyes to the obstacles Ms. Gay faces, not just from her body, but from her mind as well, and it will make you view the experience of obesity in an entirely different way.

While weight isn’t my challenge (due mostly to genetics; I look like my tall, thin father with long hair and boobs), when it came to emotions and pain, I could relate to so much of what Ms. Gay has written. My constant struggle with anxiety and depression is organic; my brain is just a jerk that enjoys lying to me, but the feelings remain the same, and so when Ms. Gay writes things like, ‘I was scared of so much as a teenager,’ and ‘It was not as easy to believe these truths as it was to know them,’ while our pain doesn’t stem from the same place, those words resonate deeply with me, because I feel it too.

I truly appreciated the section where she discussed how being as heavy as she is has opened her eyes to the challenges faced by people with disabilities. I’m not disabled, but I do have several conditions that cause me chronic pain; there are occasions where navigating the world is difficult for me, and this hasn’t been helped by…well, by people. The last time I needed to use my cane (and when I use my cane, I can’t walk without it and I’m in massive pain), I had several people slam into me at the store and grumble about my moving so slowly as they walked away (NO KIDDING, JERKFACE, MY BODY DOESN’T WORK). Ms. Gay writes about how she’s better informed about access- stairs, ramps, handrails, etc- and reading this part made me tear up (again. I did that often while reading this ). It’s rewarding when people whose challenges are not your challenges consider you and bring you into the conversation, and I’m grateful to Ms. Gay for both pointing this out and for expanding my understanding of the hurdles faced by larger people due to their size.

Ms. Gay says that she worries that she’s not brave, but my God, this book is nothing BUT bravery. Page after page of writing about the worst thing that ever happened to her and the devastation it wreaked throughout her life, to be so very honest and willing to expose so much requires levels of courage I can’t even begin to fathom. I’m so grateful that Roxane Gay has shared her story with the world. May we all learn from it and acknowledge each other’s humanity with our thoughts and actions, and may Ms. Gay know nothing but love, peace, and kindness from here on out.

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your take on it. Have you read Ms. Gay’s fiction or other works? This is my first by her, so I’m definitely curious about her other writing.

Visit Roxane Gay’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.