ARC book review: Emma’s War, by Deborah Scroggins

I read this because I came across the audiobook and essentially read every audiobook I encounter about Africa.  I enjoy these journalist and aid worker memoirs less and less relative to voices of actual African writers.  But, my thoughts…

a look at the West’s myriad and whimsical motives for interventions in Africa

Scroggins uses the life of aid worker cum rebel-wife Emma McCune to characterize the Sudanese north-south civil war. The author folds a series of stories into one volume: the life of McCune (from aristocratic British child with pony and all to adventurer to aid worker to wife of a Sudanese rebel leader), the experience of the Scroggins herself (who spent many years as a journalist in Africa), and the history of Sudan (from colonial times to the present).

[If you’re going to read one readable (i.e., not terribly dense) book about Sudan, I recommend Dave Eggers’ What Is the What, the fictionalized account of a Sudanese refugee boy in which Eggers discusses both the north-south civil war and the mass killings in Darfur.]

This book’s greatest value – and Scroggins recognizes this – is not so much in its insight into Sudan but rather in its insight into the West. We see Emma leaping into aid work as an escape from boredom, we see some aid workers water skiing back and forth in front of refugee camps while others work around the clock in feeding centers, and we see how Emma’s marriage to a Sudanese rebel affects the politics of local aid provision.** Scroggins also gives a larger history of Western intervention in Sudan. Her exploration of the manifold and whimsical motivations of Western involvement is insightful and worthwhile.

That said, I found the pre-Sudan life history of McCune (a chunk of the beginning of the book) tiresome, and occasionally Scroggins’ judgment jumps the gun on her analysis.* But in general she seeks to apply an even hand. Scroggins’ own observations from her time as a journalist provide a compelling illustration of the situation in southern Sudan (25 years ago, anyway). I also learned where anthropologists can get jobs (the UN, apparently).

I wouldn’t rush out to buy this book, but I’m not sorry I read it.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook read by Kate Reading (an appropriate name for a narrator), published by Blackstone Audio. It comes in a bit long at 12 CDs, but Reading gives a fine…well, Reading.

* For example, she comments that “the New World Order [i.e., peace in Africa] was desirable only if it could be achieved without cost to American lives” (326). Of course, this presumes that the West is capable of achieving this at some higher cost, which presumption is not obviously true.

** When I read of Emma going as an aid worker and marrying a local person, I was reminded of the wildly different story of Kenneth Goode, the anthropologist who married a Yanamamo woman.

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1 thought on “ARC book review: Emma’s War, by Deborah Scroggins”

  1. Interesting. I read this years ago when it first came out and had a similar reaction to you. I found Scroggins’ writing on the Sudan far more interesting than Emma’s story (she came across as rather flaky – if she’d been married to anyone else but a warlord there would have been no story of interest). Her mother also wrote a book about her TILL THE SUN GROWS COLD, now out of print.

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