August 2, 2019
Genre/Categories: Historical Fiction, Apartheid, South Africa
*This post contains Amazon affiliate links.
The Soweto Uprising of 1976 in South Africa brings together our two protagonists: nine-year-old Robin Conrad living in Johannesburg and Beauty Mbali living in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei. In Apartheid South Africa, these characters should never have met. Robin is living a comfortable life with her parents while Beauty struggles to raise her children alone after her husband’s death. After the Soweto Uprising, Robin’s parents are dead and Beauty’s daughter is missing. Extraordinary circumstances bring them together and as they grieve their losses, they form a bond. This complex and heartfelt story is told through alternating perspectives.
Amazon Rating: 4.5 Stars
Title: First, have you ever chosen a book based on a title?! I’ve been intrigued by this book for a while because of excellent reviews and because of the title! It reminds me of a favorite thought: “You can’t think your way into a new way of acting; you must act your way into a new way of thinking.” This title implies action! Persisting. Putting one foot in front of the other and moving ahead. So, right away I felt an affinity toward this book!
Setting and Culture: I love to push my reading boundaries and read outside my comfort zone. I admit that sometimes those types of reads can be difficult (and this story does have loss, pain, and grief), but it was also filled with some humor, lots of poignancy, and a generous serving of hope. As it opened my eyes to a different culture, it encouraged me to make connections to my own. Bianca Marais uses vivid details to put the reader right into the story and onto the streets and fields of South Africa.
Characters: My favorite characters are regular people who take risks and accomplish extraordinary things under the most difficult circumstances, are persistent, determined, and brave. Robin and Beauty are all of this and more. Despite their cultural and racial differences, they form a close mother/daughter bond and I’m always partial to “found family” themes. Robin and Beauty will capture your heart. They are well developed and complex characters with a healthy mixture of good and bad traits. Robin, especially, can be a bit unlikeable at times because of her impulsiveness and insecurities. But she’s just nine and is dealing with a lot! I can’t forget to mention that there’s a set of (somewhat stereotypical) colorful supporting characters including a wonderful and amazing librarian!
Themes: Any book receiving four or five stars from me must have some important themes. Hum If You Don’t Know the Words has thoughtful themes including found family, loyalty, friendship, taking risks, racial injustice, loss, hope and belief, kids trying to make sense of the world, the power of love, violent vs nonviolent protests, and survival.
A Favorite Quote:
“I took one last look at the mother who never gave up and the prodigal daughter who found her way home, and it gave me hope that we imperfect creatures can find other imperfect creatures through the power of the imperefect emotion we called love.”
Own voices? I’m always curious if a book like this is written by an “own voices” author. Bianca Marais is an insider having been born in South Africa and has worked with a company providing for HIV/AIDS orphans and their caregivers. She also encourages women in South Africa to tell their “own voices” stories. If you are an “own voices” reviewer, please leave your link in comments!
What I Wish: The following opinion falls under the category of personal preference, and I hope it will be accepted as a constructive comment. I would love the story even more if the author had been less pedantic and not so heavily agenda-driven. I wish she had trusted the reader more to draw their own conclusions. The story is powerful and the lessons are right there, so there is no need to restate them or emphasize a point. In addition, the ending for me was a bit over the top and stretched the believability boundaries, but overall I was rooting for the characters and loved the story so much that this was easy to overlook.
Recommended: I’m highly recommending Hum If You Don’t Know the Words for fans of compelling historical fiction, for those who appreciate culturally diverse reads, for readers who live in or are from South Africa (I’d love to hear opinion in comments!), for those who are looking for inspirational and heartfelt stories featuring amazing characters, and for book clubs because of the variety of discussion topics. I’m eager to read the new release If You Want to Make God Laugh.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars
Meet the Author, Bianca Marais
Bianca Marais holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, and her work has been published in World Enough and Crime.
Before turning to writing, she started a corporate training company and volunteered with Cotlands where she assisted care workers in Soweto with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans.
Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband.
Have you read Hum If You Don’t Know the Words?
What books set in South Africa have you read?
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