A vision of contemporary Africa almost as horrifying as Conrad’s in Heart of Darkness, with violence flaring in all directions—toward children, toward Africans and toward NGO workers engaged in humanitarian works.
Hickey, the narrator, is a self-described “guide, ne’er-do-well [and] aid worker” who tries to make some sense of the chaotic and war-torn land of Central Africa. In his peripatetic travels, he meets up with Ruth, who’s working with Protestants Against Famine, a group operating in southern Sudan on a shoestring budget and with the shadow of hope. Hickey is haunted by the blunt and no-nonsense manner of Ruth and by the searing honesty of her vision. While on one level she realizes that the problems she faces are immense and perhaps even insoluble, on another, she wants to do everything she can to relieve the suffering of even one child. Hickey had been in danger of turning defiantly cynical, but his encounter with Ruth is strangely life-affirming. Traveling from one beleaguered compound to another, Ruth dispenses medicine and operates outside the more reputable borders of aid organizations such as OxFam. (She even cavalierly calls Protestants Against Famine a “rinky-dink” operation.) Both Hickey and Ruth get caught up in the crossfire of tribal warfare, and both try desperately to save the lives of those they’ve befriended, like Bol, a native who speaks multiple languages, and children, the most innocent victims of the violence. Ultimately, although the carnage is terrifying in Hoagland’s graphic descriptions, both Hickey and Ruth survive to continue their desperate work
Hoagland’s style is dense and tightly packed, each sentence weighted with significance, which makes the carnage and heartbreak he dramatizes all the more powerful.