Smith’s debut collection of short tales mostly deals with the difficulties faced by young men growing up in Sierra Leone.
These stories offer cursory glimpses into the lives of people living in the complex, troubled land that the U.N. often refers to as the worst country on earth. Yet little of that supposedly rampant lawlessness or bloodshed is reflected in these simple, naïve accounts of boys and men attempting to become educated, please their fathers and succeed in the contemporary world. Smith, who himself has achieved an impressive level of education, has long been fascinated by writers, particularly those connected to Africa. In one story, “Equiano and His Captain Dream of Suddenly Becoming Rich,” he references early African-diaspora writer Olaudah Equiano. Another Smith story, “Richard Gets Lured into Widely Reading and a Literary World,” is based on a documented incident involving African-American writer Richard Wright, who, as a black man in Memphis in the 1920s, cannot check out books from the public library, so he makes arrangements with a white co-worker to lend him a library card. Wright hands the card to the librarian, along with a forged note—“Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H.L. Mencken.” Thus begins the literary education of one of America’s great writers. This inspiring and infuriating anecdote has great potential in the hands of a skilled writer. In this collection, however, Smith struggles to summon any of its power; poorly constructed sentences, misused vocabulary and general imprecision detract from the narrative’s weight. In describing the climactic scene, Smith writes that Wright hands the librarian what “he thought would be a full-proof note,” and then “he doffed off his hat and standing at a respectful distance from the desk, tried to put on as unbookish a look as he could create out of himself.” The theme of boys trying to secure an education runs through almost every story: In “The Changing Fortunes of a Student in Crisis,” a promising student suffers a complete breakdown but is ultimately cured after he finds out that he passed his all-important exams, and in “Running Against Failure,” a boy frantically tries to navigate the town’s inadequate transportation system so he can take his required exams.
An admirable focus on the importance of education, but inexact prose and shaky story structure diminish the effort.