Read African Writers: When the Ground Is Hard, by Malla Nunn

when the ground is hardeswatiniAs Adele boards the bus to return to her boarding school for mixed-race students in Apartheid-era Swaziland (now eSwatini), she learns that a wealthier girl has taken her place in the clique of powerful, popular girls. She suddenly finds herself rooming with Lottie, a low-income student with little respect for social norms, in a room last used by a student who died. But over the course of a school year, a series of adventures and a shared copy of the novel Jane Eyre bring the girls together. In this sweet, engaging book, Swazi born and raised writer Malla Nunn draws on her own experiences (as she discusses here) to explore both class and race issues in southern Africa. When the Ground Is Hard is targeted to young adults but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Bahni Turpin reads the unabridged audiobook well.

Here are a few passages that stood out to me:
  • On teacher effort in science class: “Mr. Newman, who smells of aftershave and leans too close to girls, starts the lesson with a basic ‘name three planets, three trees, and three mammals’ test that all but the thickest students will pass. Mr. Newman is lazy, and teaching us new things requires effort.”
  • On race relations: “Mother says poor white people are the most dangerous. Some of them have less money than we do, and they hate us for it. From the moment we slide into the world with our mixed blood and mixed features, we live below them, no matter how stupid or hopeless they are.” [Later] “Mother says that poor white people are dangerous because only a thin layer of skin makes them kings of the land, but it’s not enough to save them from the pity of other whites or the silent contempt of natives who must suffer their cruelty.”
  • On the contrast between literature figure Jane Eyre and her fiction friend Helen Burns: Jane “has a temper. Her mouth doesn’t hurt from smiling. She’s the one who gets to live and write the book.”
  • On class: “No-fee students get smaller portions of food. Their stomachs are always empty, and that’s not how things should be.”

Here are what a few other reviewers thought:

  • Kirkus Reviews: “With a critical emphasis on power dynamics among the multiracial students, the story moves quickly… An engrossing narrative that gently but directly explores complex relationships.”
  • Diane Colson, Booklist: “Despite the predictable arc of the story, excellent writing and an evocative setting make this novel a standout.”
  • Bailey Riddle, Riddle’s Reviews: “When the Ground is Hard is a beautiful book about family and finding oneself. I am so happy that I gave this book a chance with an open mind.”
  • Compass Book ratings: “Those who enjoy a coming-of-age story with a great moral lesson or two will love When the Ground is Hard.”

This is book #28 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

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