My name is Ardis and I am an avid reader and budding writer. I want to share my love of books with others. I work with kids and am interested in finding and creating books that will ignite the reader in everyone. Contact me at: ardis.atkins@gmail.com

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Book Review: Hum If You Don't Know The Words by Bianca Marais


Synopsis (From Goodreads):

Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a nine-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970s Johannesburg. In the same nation but worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her children alone after her husband's death. Both lives have been built upon the division of race, and their meeting should never have occurred . . . until the Soweto Uprising, in which a protest by black students ignites racial conflict, alters the fault lines on which their society is built, and shatters their worlds when Robin’s parents are left dead and Beauty’s daughter goes missing.

After Robin is sent to live with her loving but irresponsible aunt, Beauty is hired to care for Robin while continuing the search for her daughter. In Beauty, Robin finds the security and family that she craves, and the two forge an inextricable bond through their deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty finds her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, so she makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences. Her quest to make amends and find redemption is a journey of self-discovery in which she learns the harsh truths of the society that once promised her protection.

Told through Beauty and Robin's alternating perspectives, the interwoven narratives create a rich and complex tapestry of the emotions and tensions at the heart of Apartheid-era South Africa. Hum if You Don’t Know the Words is a beautifully rendered look at loss, racism, and the creation of family.

This was the book club selection for a group of readers who meet at the wonderful bookstore named, A Great Good Place For Books, in Oakland, California.   I have never participated in a book club before, but I was so thankful that I did.  This was a marvelous book!  South Africa's Apartheid is seen from two viewpoints: a ten-year-old white child who has lost her parents, and a black mother searching for her daughter.

What I Liked:
The book is set in South Africa in the 1970's.  I was a child of about the same age as one of the main characters, Robin, at that time, but I was completely oblivious as to what was going on there.  As I learned from reading this book, that was not an accident.  South Africa was a very isolated country, with information going both in, and out, of the country tightly controlled by the government.  People in South Africa just accepted their racism as the norm, and those living in other countries didn't have a true picture of what Apartheid meant.

The novel's action takes place in several places in South Africa.  Beauty, the other main character, is shown to be very happy in her small village.  This is a celebration of a small community, where everyone looks after each other, and walking around barefoot is not a sign of poverty, but of connecting to the land.  Later, in her quest to find her daughter, Beauty must journey to Johannesburg where the noise and crowding of a large city seem depressing and scary.

Robin also moves from a small mining outpost where she can run outside all day playing, to her aunt's small apartment in Johannesburg.  She also finds the city strange, and feels isolated and alone.

Robin, one of the two main characters, is the young white child who is struggling to come to terms with a tragedy.  I love her dawning awareness that she has been raised a racist.  Most children automatically assume that their parents' opinions are correct.  But as Robin sees more of the world, she comes to realize how wrong she is to treat people differently based on their skin color . 

In our book club, we had some disagreement over whether or not Robin was immature, or overly mature over the course of the book.  I think she is feeling very abandoned by those who are supposed to be taking care of her, and this leads her to do some selfish things.  But cut her some slack, she is only ten!

Beauty is relentlessly seeking information about her teenage daughter, who went missing during the Soweto uprising.  She cannot accept that her daughter could be involved in (possibly) violent resistance against the government.  Although she hates how blacks are treated, she doesn't see how things will change, and just wants to live unobtrusively.  Can she learn to understand her daughter's actions?

Edith is Robin's care-free aunt.  She represents how women are changing in the 1970's.  She has a career as a flight attendant, and travels the world with no ties to a husband or children, until Robin comes along.  One can really see Edith's struggle between keeping her independence and her love for Robin.  Sometimes I found her hard to like, as many of her actions seem thoughtless.  But she is a very human character, and I appreciated that she wasn't supremely good or bad.

The story is told in alternating chapters in the voices of Robin and Beauty. They do not meet until nearly the middle of the book!  But this gives the reader time to understand each of them on their own.

I was very moved by Beauty's search for her daughter.  I know if my own daughter went missing, I would move heaven and earth to find her.  Beauty keeps asking questions and looking for clues, so much so that she is being threatened to stop her search.  But who can blame a mother for wanting to know the truth, however painful.

Robin and Edith are thrown together by a tragedy.  While their relationship is bumpy, they both do some growing up over the course of the book.  Robin starts to understand how to be self-reliant, which is a positive thing.  All children need to learn that others will not always take care of them.

Edith also makes peace with her new role as parent.  There are some rough times for Edith as she rages at this responsibility that is thrust upon her.  She is grieving both the loss of a family member, but also of her freedom. 


Release Date:  July 11th, 2017

Genre: Historical fiction

Publisher:  G.P. Putnam's Sons

Author:  Bianca Marais

Page Length: 432 pages

Source:  Bought

Format:  Paperback book

Recommendation:  This was a powerful historical fiction about South Africa during Apartheid, with characters you will love.

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2019 Reading Challenge

2019 Reading Challenge
MsArdychan has read 10 books toward her goal of 120 books.


80% 80% 100 Book Reviews 2016 NetGalley Challenge
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