One hundred thirty-nine schoolgirls are abducted from their dormitory beds. Risking grave peril to negotiate their release, the headmistress returns with 109. Thirty are taken into the jungle by brutal rebels who force them to witness, perpetrate and endure atrocities: to bear the children of their captors, to suffer their diseases, to kill or be killed. One, Esther Akello, tells their story in Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls.
The novel’s chilling premise is steeped in fact. The Lord’s Resistance Army, formed by Joseph Kony to resist Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda People’s Defense Force, evolved into a cultish militant group guided by nationalism, mysticism and Christian fundamentalism. His foot soldiers were ordered to expand this “family.” On October 10, 1996, LRA members abducted the girls of St. Mary’s College, a Catholic boarding school in Aboke, Uganda, and kept 30. Twenty-six eventually escaped. Four died in captivity.
Minot learned of the girls’ plight from Angelina Auytum, head of the Concerned Parents Association of Uganda, the honored guest of a New York City dinner party she attended. Auytum’s testimony inspired Minot to journey to Uganda to interview the girls. She wrote an article about her experience for Harper’s Magazine, followed by an essay in McSweeney’s entitled “This We Came to Know Afterward,” which was later included in The Best American Travel Writing 2001.
While Minot’s first forays into the troubling subject were nonfiction, she cautions readers against conflating that work with Thirty Girls. “As a fiction writer, I try not to focus on what I know firsthand and focus on what I know as a human being relating to other people’s experiences,” she says. “Pertinent to me is the exploration of certain kinds of struggle, as opposed to turning something into fiction that I have some contact with.”
One compelling reason to draw clean lines lies in the novel’s second struggle, that of American journalist Jane Wood. Like Minot, Jane travels to Uganda via Kenya to visit the rehabilitation centers where Kony survivors work on transitioning back to their former lives, but that’s where the similarities cease. Jane has her own problems: the dissolution of her marriage to a drug addict, who subsequently overdoses; a budding sexual relationship with a white Kenyan paraglider approximately 15 years her junior; a general unmooring. While possessing a desire to do good work in Uganda, Jane is preoccupied by her own insecurities.
“She wished she had a different body, with long legs, and a different face, with full dark features, and a spirit that spread joy around her. What she saw was a person with no real home, a woman without a child, an idiot girl whose mind despite being full of hijackers and anti-Semitism, SWAT teams and demented dictators, was nevertheless still preoccupied with a man fifteen years younger who at eleven in the morning was still sleeping,” Minot writes.
Such self-indulgence can’t help but stand in stark contrast to Esther’s traumas. The juxtaposition is purposeful, the author says. “Obviously what Esther is contending with is more profound than Jane, there’s no question about it. I would say that Esther’s story could be in a book on its own, because it does have such high stakes and the struggles are so different,” Minot says. “She’s contending with enslavement and a true kind of evil, every day. I wanted to put them in the same book because that’s what’s going on in the same world. Everyone’s [personal] struggles are compelling to them.”
Esther’s struggles are universally compelling—heartbreaking, stomach-churning. She is forced to participate in a fatal beating, loses her best friend to AIDS and a child at birth. Factual undergirding lends a lightning crackle to her troubled sentiments. Minot writes, “There is a person inside me who has been very bad and does not deserve a chance at life. She has done things no good person would do. I might argue against that and say, No, I am Esther. I am a good person, as good as I can be. But another voice is stronger and that voice says it would be better if I were dead.”
But Esther has survived and has the potential to thrive at Kiryandongo Camp, the rehab where she is taken after escaping her captors on foot, a perilous journey of many miles. Jane is en route in a white truck driven by her lover, accompanied by three friends: a French photographer, an American ex-pat friend and her beau du jour, a businessman. All seem destined for a calamitous cultural collision, but instead of deepening contrast, the visit illuminates select similarities between Esther and Jane. “They’re both, in a way, concerned with home—whether they’re running away from it or trying to get back to it, unable to get back to it,” Minot says. “They are both experiencing a change in how they have always thought things were. That change in perception is very interesting to me. They’ve both been through different kinds of traumatic situations. I think both are suffering from a post-traumatic distress.”
Esther’s enslavement is corporal, while Jane suffers from constraints of mind. “I hate to parallel too much, but Jane has a certain kind of enslavement as well [as Esther]. It’s an enslavement that does have to do with personal relationships, as opposed to enslaved by poverty, enslaved in some other way. It has to do with the control other people have over us, whether it’s voluntary, whether it’s romantic or whether it’s sadistic....But Jane has a choice in a way that Esther doesn’t,” says Minot.
It’s a precarious truth, as the narrative proves that no one is immune to tragedy. Minot writes, “It is interesting how one can understand a way that one was only after one is another way.” The sentiment is Esther’s, but by narrative’s end, it is Jane who will be tested to see if she is ready to meet life’s terrible challenges with transformative grace.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.