Little Family by Ishmael Beah
Published by Riverhead
Publication date: April 28, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Cultural, Fiction, Literary
In an abandoned field hidden by a maze of thickets, trees, and shrubs is a downed airplane. When it crashed is unknown, but in this unnamed African country it has become home for four young people and one little girl. In Little Family they use stealth, determination, and their wits to survive in a world that either views them with suspicion or has forgotten them entirely.
At 20, Elimane is the oldest. He once lived a life of wealth, but all he had was lost. Now, he reads anything he can find and uses his educated background to find temporary jobs that will either pay him or barter with goods they need. He and Khoudi, a young woman, are the group’s ‘parents’, teaching the others and caring for them. They are teenagers Ndevui and Kpindi and the newest member, 10-year-old Namsa, who was with them for almost a month before she would speak. Each has come from a place of trauma that’s left them alone in the world, but
…they had an unspoken understanding not to press one another about the past and its pain, but to keep trying to live in the present, offering silent understanding and respect.
In this way, they’ve fashioned a secret place of security in a country where the divide between wealth and poverty is enormous and corruption is endemic. Most of their days are spent on survival, but while they live as a family, they acknowledge that each has their own private lives. Elimane reads, Ndevui runs, and Khoudi has discovered a hidden cove where she goes to bathe and relax alone. She keeps clothes there that she’s stolen from rich women on the beach. Clothes that she can’t wear in public because as part of her everyday existence she has to blend in. Her own safety relies on not being seen as a woman so she dresses like a young man in hoodies and jeans.
It’s two chance encounters that upend the family’s life. Elimane helps a businessman who then provides him with a cell phone, calls him for jobs, and pays him in cash. The legality of these jobs is never questioned because the money is so good it allows them to live normally—buying not only what they need, but even what they want. These jobs become more dangerous and the rest of the family becomes involved, but the money is so good they can’t resist.
Author Ishmael Beah wrote an unnerving memoir, A Long Way Gone, about his time as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone. Little Family feels as if it could come from real experience as well. That a group of young people, still almost children themselves, would be left without parents or homes to survive on their own. A place and time where the cracks in the system are chasms. It is deeply depressing to think of the loss of potential in so many bright minds due to political instability, but Beah injects hope with the resilience and determination used by this group to build the family and support systems they lost as children. The novel’s ending is poignant and inevitable, but still left me sad for this band of young people who took the wreckage of their past and created new life.
Backlist beauties: Two more novels I loved that play with concept of family: Hunting and Gathering and Infinite Home. Both are easily available from your library.
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