CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 19. . . .January 21, 2011
A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk.
Jan L. Coates.
Markham, ON: Red Deer Press/Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010.
291 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Deng, Joseph-Juvenile fiction.
Refugee children-Sudan-Juvenile fiction.
Sudan-History-Civil War, 1983-2005-Refugees-Juvenile fiction.
Sudan-History-Civil War, 1983-2005-Children-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
It is 1987, a time of growing conflict in the African nation of Sudan. Jacob Deng is seven-years-old, and lives with his mother and his sisters in the southern Sudanese village of Duk Padiet. His people are known as "Dinka," a word which, in their language, means "people." He plays soccer and "Seek and Find" with other boys in the village, helps to tend goats and cattle, and idolizes his Uncle Daniel, the best local wrestler. Herdsman, wrestler, soccer player, soldier Ė what is to be Jacobís future? His motherís hope is that he and his sister will attend school:
" ...you must both go to school. An education will give you the tools to carve a better future for our people." Jacob looked up at his mother. She did not often use such a serious voice. Her long face, which people said was so like his, was not smiling as it usually was. "It is important to have big dreams and follow them. If your papa was still here, that would be his wish for you also."
"But my dream is to be the best wrestler in all of Sudan, like Uncle Daniel. Or maybe I will be a soldier. I will not need to go to school," Jacob insisted.
"With knowledge will come peace. With peace and knowledge together, Southern Sudan will be able to grow stronger. Wadeng,* Jacob; Wadeng. Look always to tomorrow Ė it will be better, especially if young people like you go to school. You must always dream of a better tomorrow."
"But today is good," Jacob said quietly, tucking his small hand into hers.
"People are fighting all around us," his mother replied. "We have been lucky war has not yet found Duk Padiet."
( *Wadeng is a Dinka word meaning "look always to tomorrow.")
Sadly, it doesnít take long for war to find the village. When it does, Jacobís nephew, Monyroor, a 14-year-old who has already been initiated into manhood, grabs Jacob, insisting that they leave the village and head for the relative safety of the surrounding forest. The next day, Jacob insists that he return to look for his mother and sisters, but Monyroor is equally insistent that they must leave and walk in an easterly direction, to Ethiopia, hundreds of kilometers distant, where they will be safe. Travel at night is dangerous as hyenas and lions stalk their prey, but the scorching heat of the day-time sun makes travel physically exhausting.
After some days, Jacob and his companions see on the horizon "a giant snake . . . slithering across the sand, moving constantly, clouds of dust rising up on either side of it." As the snake comes into view, it grows legs, looking like a centipede, and then, it becomes clear that it is a slowly-marching line of boys, also in flight, heading for Ethiopia. They are thin, ragged, and listless. Amazingly, Jacob encounters his friend, Oscar, who tells him of their hope that they will reach Ethiopia, a place where there will be "more food than you can imagine, and schools and fine houses full of chairs and tables." Hope manages to sustain the boys, despite continual deprivation, and then, after weeks of walking, they find that they have travelled in a circle and are back to where they begin their trek.
When they finally reach the river Gilo, on the border between Sudan and Ethiopia, they face new terrors: crocodiles waiting for the weak and defenceless. When, at last, they reach Pinyudo Refugee Camp in Ethiopia, there are no feasts, no fine houses. Yes, there is food, and even the opportunity for some basic schooling, but the boys have to work hard for it, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the smaller kids, and worst of all, carrying the dead for burial in the campís "Zone Eight." Amazingly, Jacob survives; he has little free time, but when he does, he clutches a blue stone his mother gave him at the beginning of the story, and which becomes a touchstone for his memory of her.
Time passes, and after four years, rumblings of trouble reach the Pinyudo camp, and in time, the boys are on the march again, this time, their destination being the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Although the camp sees a continual influx of Dinka refugees, it loses the older boys and young men to the "recruitment" drives of the SPLA (Sudanese Peopleís Liberation Army), whose rifles and strength promise more of a future than life in the refugee camp. Nevertheless, Jacob holds fast to his motherís dream and is offered a small job, translating for aid workers at the camp. And with this, Jacob takes the first steps on the road which leads him from Kakuma to Nairobi, and, ultimately, to his dream of attending school. Seven very long years have passed for this "Lost Boy" of Sudan.
A Hare in the Elephantís Trunk is an incredible story, a novel based on the experiences of Jacob Akech Deng, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," who survived seven years on the march Ė all the while facing starvation, parching thirst, illnesses of all types, attacks by wild animals, and the emotional pain of losing family and all that is familiar. That he was able to keep fast to his motherís hope and dream for education is its own miracle. By the end of the story, Jacob is14, ready to be a man in Dinka culture, but his childhood ended the day that he awoke to the sound of "a rapid series of terrific bangs that echoed through the night. . . .The sky above was filled with what looked like giant, rumbling, roaring dragonflies. Their blades sliced wickedly through the air as they dropped their bundles onto the village." Despite their loss of innocence, Jacob and his friends are, at times, still boys: they play soccer with a home-made ball, Oscar tells the lamest jokes imaginable, and in the camp school, fellow villager, Majok, competes fiercely with Jacob for top marks. Author Jan Coates has managed to keep a childís perspective, even as these boys are forced to contend with situations which overwhelm adults.
At 286 pages, plus a glossary and an interview with the author, I think that A Hare in the Elephantís Trunk is a bit longer than most works of juvenile fiction. Itís not difficult reading, but it is a difficult story, and I think that it might have more appeal to readers of age 14 and up than the "12+" suggested, despite the fact that Jacob is but seven years old, at the beginning of the novel. As a compelling story of the lives of war-affected children, it certainly has a place in middle-school (a choice for more advanced readers) and senior high school libraries and would be a good choice as supplemental work for language arts/English classroom studies of war-time experiences.
A recently retired high school teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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