Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chanda's Secrets

I saw Allan Stratton speak at at writer's event a few years ago, but it's taken me until recently to read Chanda's Secrets.

Chanda’s Secrets is set in a fictional country in sub-Saharan Africa. The book opens with our protagonist, 16-year-old Chanda, negotiating with the undertaker to prepare a burial and funeral for her 1 ½ -year old half-sister. Mama is despondent, leaving Chanda to make arrangements and care for her other half-siblings, a brother and a sister.

The family lives in the shantytown, but they haven’t always. They originally lived in the country, where life was pretty good. Then Chanda’s father and brothers were killed in a diamond mine accident and things got decidedly tougher. Chanda’s mother eventually re-marries three times. Chanda’s first step-father number one abused Chanda; #2 was kind, but died of a stroke; and #3, the current one, is an alcoholic philanderer. But…what the book is really about is HIV/AIDS in Africa and how, while the illness is startlingly common, it is unmentionable. Individuals and families are shunned if people in their family have the disease, yet everyone knows that almost every family is affected. HIV/AIDS is the big, white unmentionable elephant in the room that is Africa (or at least this fictional country in Africa, but we know this is the case in reality, too).

This story is narrated by Chanda, a bright, educated girl. She is fiercely devoted to and protective of her family and friends. We’re with her as she navigates through this misery, and ultimately — when HIV/AIDS hits close to home more than once — takes the prejudice surrounding the disease head on.

My 14-year-old daughter read this book as well. When asked, she said she didn't like it, but that was primarily because it was so sad. She did stay up all night to finish it though – she wanted to see how it ended and she did acknowledge she learned a lot and that the writing drew her in. She just wasn't ready for sad at that point in her reading life. Yes, it was sad, but, to Stratton’s credit, I didn’t walk away from it feeling despondent. I was angry at the injustice for many reasons, but I knew that our bright Chanda, and likely the family that remains in her care, is moving forward and that, one day, things are going to be better. To that end, we will soon find out as a sequel, Chanda's Wars, awaits.

This book has, most deservedly IMHO, won a whack of awards and honours. Stratton has prepared a teacher's guide for the book and you can listen to a podcast from NPR here.

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