Set in Ethiopia in the 1950s, Ambau’s moving tale is a lively coming-of-age story with merging themes of forgiveness and redemption.
Desta’s early years are filled with longing—to be loved more fully by his family and to understand why he is so often the object of his brothers’ torment. He longs, too, for the day he will climb the mountain beyond his home to touch the sky and gather the clouds in his hands. For several years, he plans what he’ll take on his journey, but he is too young to make the trek alone, and his sisters and mother repeatedly fall back on their promises to accompany him. On the eve of Desta’s seventh birthday and his rite of passage into adulthood, his father, Abraham, reveals the duties that will now be expected of him; aside from his new grown-up responsibilities of tending animals and helping with harvests, Desta and his niece, Astair, have been tasked with contacting the spirits—with the assistance of a sorcerer, Deb’tera Tayé—to ask for help in resolving his sister Saba’s inability to conceive and carry a son to term. Desta’s real troubles begin when a cloudlike man appears to him during the spiritual ceremony, providing instructions for Abraham and his family that will further anger Desta’s brothers and turn them even more vehemently against him. To make matters worse, many in the community laugh at the boy and scorn him for what they suspect are wild imaginings. Ambau’s deft descriptions of spiritual happenings and ancient blessings transport the reader to another time and place that almost seamlessly alternates between the magical world of the cloud man—“stippled with dots and tinged with gold”—and the despairing reality of a little boy who suffers brutal beatings at the hands of those he loves. Readers may wonder what caused the abrupt shift in Abraham’s character when he whips the boy mercilessly, since the author has shown us a gentle and compassionate father to this point. One might also wonder at the quickness with which young Desta puts the affair behind him, as he later does again when slighted by his father at a family feast. Throughout, Ambau shows us a boy who is perhaps unusually resilient and abundantly forgiving of his father, yet real enough to be mightily challenged in his attempts to forgive his bullying brothers.
Desta’s strength and tenacity in this first volume will entice many readers to eagerly anticipate the next installment of the young boy’s journey and the continuation of his family’s saga.