Just-for-Me Book Club: Reading Your Books!

Author Jacqueline Woodson

Last November, I asked for book recommendations from readers and commenters, and compiled a list of 24 books to read. This gave me an array of titles completely different from what I would have chosen myself. I am pleased to say I am now 13 books in! Since my last reviews in April, I’ve read 3 more. I delayed posting about them for a while because some of the bloggers are offline now – temporarily, I hope. They were all amazing, though, and I am eager to talk about the books!

Jamie Ray from A Boy and Her Dog recommended Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. It was published as a children’s book but has the broadest generational appeal I can imagine. It is a memoir. I fell in love with the author as I read it – her words, her voice, her style, and her real life. Brown Girl Dreaming has a strong storyline. Jackie returns to her mother’s hometown in Georgia with her family. We learn about the roots of the family on both sides, why they left and why they returned. Next, I was immersed in the hot summer nights of the south and her life with extended family. Jackie’s relationship with her grandfather, whom she called Daddy, moved me to tears. Family members go and come back from the north, and eventually Jackie’s family departs for NYC, where the streets are not “paved with gold” as expected. There are some very suspenseful passages as you worry for Jackie’s mother and wonder if Jackie will be betrayed by her best friend. Since it’s told through the eyes of a child, adults can read between the lines and figure out more of what happened than a child reader would. The book has many happy surprises in store as Ms. Woodson marches to the beat of her own drummer and comes out as a writer. The book filled me with hope and made me feel connected to my own past. Mature readers interested in genealogy would love this. It also places key events in civil rights history (1960s and 70s) into the everyday life of a child, making them very relatable. I give this book SIX stars.

Sunny from Life Is Full of Sunny Days recommended Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This was an incredibly ambitious first novel. Gyasi contains the entire history of the American slave trade and its continuing impact in one book. It has a clever structure. The story begins in Ghana in the 1700s as two sisters are separated by the slave trade, one captured and sold, the other remaining in her village. After that, each chapter tells the story of a descendent of each sister, one branch of the family in the US and the other in Ghana. It goes chronologically from the 1700s to the current day. Gyasi is a wonderful writer and I became completely caught up with the tale of each generation on both sides of the Atlantic. The drawback was that I would become invested in each character and would be disappointed when they were dropped in the next chapter and their child’s life was the focus. I had to shift my expectations and get pulled along by the arc of history. The book made vivid how the history of slavery still affects Blacks and whites in America today, in all aspects of life. I don’t know any other book of fiction to achieve that (there was Between the World and Me in nonfiction). Some may say this reads like a book of short stories; that is not a criticism. The subject matter has great emotional impact and it is therefore not an easy read, nor should it be – I don’t think the author should have changed anything to make it easier. It was actually very readable considering the horrific events that occurred. This can be read for its literary value or for its history. I look forward to more by the author. Recommended!

I was surprised when Fiona from Declutterer (currently offline) suggested that I read Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire. It is one of those books I knew I should read but I didn’t know if I wanted to – because it was about the 1990s genocide in Rwanda. Not pleasure reading. But several things drew me to it. Romeo Dallaire founded an organization called the Child Soldiers Initiative which is headquartered in my home town, and I had attended a lecture by its director, Shelly Whitman. I wanted to know more of the story.

Romeo Dallaire was the Canadian Lieutenant-General assigned to lead a small UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the end of 1993. A ceasefire was in effect and they were to oversee the peace accord and the transition to a new government. Since the 1960s, Canada has prided itself on providing peacekeepers. I wanted to hear about what went wrong.

In Shake Hands with the Devil, Gen. Dallaire provides a day-by-day, hour-by-hour account of the military and humanitarian mission he led. He detailed all his official actions, held himself fully accountable, named names, described the outcomes, and was utterly crushed by the lack of international response. Despite what you might think, I could hardly put it down. I know so little about the Canadian Armed Forces and what they actually do on the ground when they are on a mission. Learning about the strategy and how it was implemented was enthralling. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. If anyone is interested, do a Google search for “Rwanda Genocide Timeline” to get a quick summary.

So, the UN did not approve the requests for personnel, training, vehicles, equipment, or anything else. Essentially, they supported the effort “in principle” but were unable to muster any resources. They relied on member countries to volunteer troops and supplies, but they weren’t forthcoming. At one point during the massacres there were a laughable 270 UN troops in the country. They were unable to defend themselves against rebel factions and were ordered to withdraw, allowing the slaughter to escalate dramatically. Meanwhile, countries around the world airlifted their own citizens out.

One of the things that shocked me most was that the UN mission in Rwanda had almost no intelligence about what was happening among the warring factions. Meanwhile, the governing party that was responsible for the genocide had a seat on the UN Security Council and was feeding it distorted information.

You probably know that at least 800,000 people were massacred in 100 days and the UN resisted calling it a genocide until it was over. As you can imagine, the real reasons no one intervened in Rwanda were because it is a small landlocked country with few natural resources to extract, and no one was willing to risk white western lives for Black African lives, let alone pay the (financial) costs to do so.

Last month I attended another program by the Child Soldiers Initiative, at which Gen. Dallaire was featured. His work now is in policy and advocacy.

I felt I was missing the point of view of Rwandans and what they want for themselves and their country. I wonder how Rwandans feel now, almost 25 years later, about their abandonment by the rest of the world, and about their reconciliation and rebuilding process. I will need to search out more accounts to get some balance.

Shake Hands with the Devil requires an investment of time and emotional energy that goes beyond the norm. It gave the perspective of that particular mission in excruciating detail, which would limit the appeal for most people. But I am tremendously glad I read it because I learned so much and gained understanding.

Whew! This personalized book club is exhausting 😊 I love it. Eleven more books to read, and a good mix of content. Stay tuned!

20 comments

  1. Every time the subject of 1994 genocide comes up, I am left with a jumble of emotions. It was when I first came to Rwanda in 2009 that I started losing my faith. I could no longer comprehend that an existing, all seeing, all mighty, omniscient God, could allow such things to happen when in the bible, people would be struck dead or with blindness for so much as seeing their parent naked.
    Things that still keep me awake at night:
    1. At the peak of the genocide, the interahamwe boasted an impressive 1000 Tutsi kills every 20 minutes.
    2. To save bullets, infants would be repeatedly smashed against tree trunks, walls, until they died.
    3. That pregnant women would have their unborn Tutsi babies cut out of their bodies.
    4.That over 250,000 women were raped purely based on their ethinicity by the very men who abhorred their existence, ironically resulting into 20,000 children who would then inherit the tribes of the very perpetrators.
    5. That for 3 months there was no food, no trade coming into this country and those that had survived by hiding in the mountains and forests would themselves succumb to starvation.
    6. That thousands of people run to hide in churches, perceiving them to be sacred ground, believing that anointed men/women of god would keep their secret, only to be betrayed by those same cloaked heroes, and to be instead handed over to slaughter.
    7. That foreign embassies airlifted their citizens and had room for pets on the evacuation transport but not the local staff that had served them for years.

    I could go on, but this is not the purpose of this post. I have tried to read this book several times, and always stop after the first few chapters unable to continue. I was 10 in 1994 and lived 400miles away in the relative safety of Entebbe, Uganda. Our home was within walking distance of Lake Victoria. A few months into the ‘civil war’ (which is what the UN decided it was at the time) the fishing village came to a stand still. For miles and miles, the shores were clogged with white (discoloured), bloated, dismembered bodies, that had somehow made it through rivers and across borders. I wonder sometimes if someone was counting these lives in the estimate of those dead. 23 years later, perpetrators seeking release from their sentences, confess and lead authorities to previously unknown mass graves..

    Again, I digress.

    The UN peace keeping mission did not stand a chance. There a parrallel movie called ‘Shooting Dogs’ about how these blue berets (MONUC) had permission to shoot dogs (that were starving and eating bodies that were on the streets) but not permission to intervene and stop the machete wielding killers. You can almost understand Daillaire’s frustration.

    In 2011, a few months after the Tohuku Earthquake in Japan, I was seating at the office and a young woman with a desk across from mine said. “Its interesting, why is it that an earthquake, a natural event happens and the world comes together to support and bring aid and rebuild but when human beings are killing others, the world keeps quiet. where were all these countres” I hadn’t expected the question and immediately assumed it was rhetoric, but she was looking at me and expecting an answer. I must have answered something about security, something about how no country is under obligation to fix problems in other countries, how it took long for the news to get to the world and by then the damage was done. But she insisted “How about you, our neighbours in Uganda, you knew what was happening, why didn’t you do anything!?”

    I felt like she was asking me a personal question.

    I did not have an answer.

    • Your comment is very moving! The whole thing was just too horrific for words.

    • Wow – what a comment. Like Lucinda said.

      I feel the same level of movement, emotionally, when I was in Bosnia. Knowing when I was a child, these things happened and the world watched. I don’t measure Rwanda to Bosnia, but I do measure the world, our inability to care or to help, compared to, as you point out, Japan earthquake, or… Haiti. It just cannot make sense. It cannot be justified.

      I have a faith – because I don’t believe it’s an ultimately ‘good’ power. For me, it’s a series of tales in a bible, which honestly, could be fiction for all I care, but it’s a remind to PERSONALLY do better, be better, treat others as I want to be treated. And I know that faith is my interpretation and not everyone’s.

      • I hear you Sarah, I think that is the ultimate hope is that we can learn to be selfless enough to treat others as we would like to be treated. To be kind and respectful.
        My greatest learning has been that if ever that question is put to me again, I should have an answer. That I am always part of the solution, that I don’t sit quietly when people’s rights are being taken from them. No matter how insignificant that contribution may be in the grand scheme of things. Even if it seems silly like publishing comics with LGBT+ characters

    • Hi PK, Thank you for taking the time to share. I didn’t realize you were as close as Entebbe. One thing I took away from the book was the need to stay informed, to hold our own governments to account and to implement international obligations (rather than just debating them and supporting them in principle). I think the failure of the UN response was hugely affected by “red tape,” getting hung up on receiving reports, making motions, and approving things without funding them or acting on them. I think this may be true for all genocides – both the perpetrators and the defenders are caught up in bureaucracy. It was very late in the book that Dallaire said he was aware of the rapes and had mentally blocked out the evidence because he couldn’t deal with it. I think it was only after Rwanda and Bosnia that rape was recognized as a tool of genocide. The subtitle of the book is The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda and that sums it up.

      I often wonder what I would say if someone asked me why First Nations people in Canada are so mistreated and ignored. Canada is seen as one of the good guys, yet we don’t meet our own treaty obligations, and we allow human rights abuses and neglect that would be unthinkable among white citizens (lack of safe drinking water and medical care, to name a couple). Aboriginal men have more rights than aboriginal women because it is too expensive to extend the same government benefits to all. Historically, we could say we didn’t know any better in colonial times, but now we do. It is shameful.

      In one of my many crises of faith, I got frustrated by Christians who would say God allowed natural disasters to happen because it brought people together to respond and made them kinder. I would think, yeah, God says it’s OK for 25,000 people to die in a volcanic mudslide in Colombia (1985) so 10,000 northerners can feel good about themselves for donating to the Red Cross? I have no answers, either. But I am with you in that personal actions matter and I try to always speak up and take a stand. I now strongly feel silence is complicity.

      • Thank you Dar for allowing me to bring my attention back to this book. It is difficult reading these stories but it is important. After leaving this platform yesterday I went I read some more about about the First Nations people and what they are experiencing. I had watched a documentary about life in their communities about 2 years ago. It is unbearable to think, to know that people continue to suffer these grave injustices in the 21st Century. It makes the concept of civilisation laughable. I couldn’t agree with you more, silence is complicity.

  2. You’ve sold me. I will look for some of these books. Maybe not the Rwanda. I’ll see. I don’t think I could stand it.

  3. Two from three on my ‘to read’ list on Goodreads, but only one in my library.

  4. I’ve read Woodson’s book and loved it. And am trying to read more of hers. I have wanted to read Dallaire’s book – but have not felt ready to yet. I know I will – we need to bear witness to the horrors that exist in the world. Thanks for these great recommendations.

    • Hi Bev, Thanks for your comment. I read Jacqueline Woodson’s first book (Last Summer with Maizon) when it came out in 1990, didn’t like it all, and never read another of her books until now! I will obviously have to re-read that one and give it another chance.

  5. That must have been such a hard book to read and I imagine emotionally draining. So much sadness in the world where people cannot treat each other with love, respect and compassion. I cannot imagine ever hurting anyone and certainly not torturing someone and hearing their cries of pain. I cannot understand what drives another human being to feel such hatred for another and inflict cruelty and pain upon them. When we are up against such monsters as these how can there ever be any answers?

    • A book that explores this to great lengths is The Lucifer Effect – How People Turn Evil. The author proposes that those we consider to be monsters are not made that way, that they are people like us and they live around us. That given the right set of circumstance we are all to some degree capable of evil.

      • I would hate to think that I could ever be cable of any such atrocities. The book sounds very much like the Milgram experiment back in the 50’s.

      • That’s one reason why I speak up more than in the past about injustice and intolerance, even in little ways around family, friends and co-workers. I figure I need practice in case society gets worse! I remembered hearing about the Milgram experiments and I reviewed some info – one conclusion was that the ordinary people who administered the shocks really did not know how to resist even mild authority (like someone in a “superior” role saying “You have to.”)

      • That’s right it is the authority figure like a doctor in a white coat. We learned about this first when I began my Psychology degree – it was an eye opener to think I might do exactly the same if put in this position.

    • I’m sure many books have been written on the subject of inhumanity, but I think it is a combination of “the banality of evil” (following orders unthinkingly, and escalating the evil gradually), de-personalizing enemies as if they are not real fellow human beings, and the lack of education, employment and opportunities for young adults. I hate to think that my western standard of living is not attainable by all and it even depends on there being poverty elsewhere.

      • We have just been to our local shopping mall – each time I go I feel more uncomfortable about the amount of ‘stuff’ on sale there it feels obscene that we keep on spending this way when there are people starving in the world. But of course if we stop spending here in the west there will be even more poverty in the developing countries – what a predicament!

  6. Pingback: Accounting for: July | An Exacting Life

  7. Fiona

    Dar, you are amazing in your commitment to read other people’s recommendations. I am so honoured that you read Dallaire’s book, even though I regretted referring it after the fact because it is so torturously detailed. But there is something very profound in that sheer commitment to document everything; to not turn away. And he holds himself to such impossibly high levels of accountability, almost as if the turning away by the rest of the world made him utterly determined to document each final moment of history so unblinkingly. It is a testimony and to that degree, worthy of the time and investment. But I am really honoured that you stuck with it. Definitely not an easy read. I am glad to learn of the links to your local area and Dallaire’s ongoing work.

    • Fiona, it was on my “should-read” list and your recommendation was just the push I needed. I really liked the level of detail. It made me aware of the red tape and internal (UN) politics involved, and also made me feel he was just a manager with a job to do (logistics, etc.) which I found humanizing. I know I have a tendency to look at military missions as not being accomplished by caring individuals. It really bears no comparison, but I have a project at work in which people’s livelihoods are at stake, and I aspire to the highest levels of accountability and transparency. On another note, I would like to read the personal stories of Rwandans who lived through the genocide to hear local perspectives. I know from Goodreads that you’ve read one! I continue to love reading books others have recommended, to get me out of my routine, and this one has special meaning for me.

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