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Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms
Katherine Rundell
Fiction, Elementary, Middle
Simon & Schuster
August 26, 2014
256 pp.
978 1 4424 9061 1

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms," is an engaging  story of a white farm girl raised in Zimbabwe who as an early adolescent, is sent to boarding school in England where her life is turned upside down. Katherine Rundell, the author, grew up in Zimbabwe, Brussels and London and is currently a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University.  


The main character, Wilhelmina, aka Will, is the only child of a white farm supervisor in the eastern area of Zimbabwe. Her dear friends are African Zimbabweans, also children of farm workers, and, together, they lead a carefree, happy, adventurous life in and around the farm. Her closest friend, Simon, and she ride their horses, play with monkeys, enjoy the streams and fields of this beautiful part of the country. They are "footloose and fancy free" to grow up without boundaries and without racial prejudices as young people in the new Zimbabwe. The reader experiences the joy and freedom these young people find in their world and in their friendship. Will's life takes a change when her father dies and the man who becomes her guardian decides to re-marry. His new wife wants nothing to do with Will and sends her off to boarding school in England. It is there that she encounters rejection, humiliation and racial prejudice by young white girls.  


Rundell sprinkles her narrative with touching and memorable details about life in Zimbabwe. She tells us, for example, that the curtains in Will's room have designs of the flame lily, one of the most beautiful and common flowers growing in the country. Rundell points out that washing hung outdoors to dry must be ironed because flies may lay eggs on the wet cloth, and only a hot iron will kill them. Anyone who has lived in Zimbabwe knows that this is a fact of life. Such details bring the setting to life. They are not belabored, but simply inserted into the text as something a viewer would notice if she were there.  


This story, however beautiful in its beginning, takes a wicked turn when Cynthia, the new bride of Will's guardian arrives. She becomes the stereotypical white racist, not unlike many of the early settlers in the country. Cynthia cannot pronounce Zimbabwean names; she cannot tolerate the rough and tumble life style of Will, an independent and strong-willed girl. Cynthia is furious when Will breaks a china dish. She even sees Will as a competitor for the attention of her husband, who has known Will all her life and loves her as his own daughter. Personal relationships are especially well developed in this story and will stay with the reader long after the book is finished; many will be able to identify with similar relationships in their own lives.  


Rundell uses the metaphor of the window as an effective literary device to represent Will's outlook on life, both on the farm and at the boarding school. Young readers who are interested in creative writing and in literary techniques may find many instances of this metaphor to express feelings and desires Will experiences in her eventful  life.  


Although Rundell  creates a "perfect" world for Will in Zimbabwe, life changes when Will moves to London. And it is here that the book goes a bit off kilter. Will sees the school, and London, as a prison. She is not accepted by the other girls and she misses her carefree life in Zimbabwe. She runs away and has frightening adventures in the city as she struggles through her attempt to go home. During these days of her escape, she spends a night in a monkey cage at the zoo, she sleeps in a tree and she eats discarded food from garbage cans; she cannot distinguish a department store from a museum. The reader could easily see these actions as one of a "wild African" girl, white or not, and assume that her life in Zimbabwe was "uncivilized" and "uncultured."  In fact, throughout the book, she is described as a wild, carefree child, so the affinity for monkeys and the ability to sleep safely in a tree, is not unexpected. These attributes, however, could be read by some as those of a typical African child, which they certainly are not.


Reviewed by Marylee Crofts, Retired Bentley University

Published in Africa Access Review (June 10, 2014)

Copyright 2014 Africa Access


Blue Gold

Fiction, Middle, High School
Annick Press
296 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55451-635-3   



Blue Gold is an important young adult novel. Its author, Canadian-born novelist Elizabeth Stewart, puts faces-the faces of three courageous teenage girls-on an invisible and impalpable resource, Congo's conflict coltan, that has become coterminous with the digital age. This mineral ore, which absence could grind the digital economy to a halt and send us back to the analog age, is indeed blue gold. For Congo, where 65 percent of the world's reserves of coltan ore are found, blue gold, like many other minerals that this country possesses in abundance, has become a curse. The world's insatiable appetite for coltan has fueled the deadliest conflict since World War II, with over seven million people dead, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and a staggering number of rape victims in Eastern Congo.


Sylvie is one of them. One dreadful day, soldiers swarmed her village, killed her father and raped her and her mother, leaving her face scarred by a deep machete cut and her memory seared in pain.  With their village destroyed, and the ever presence of soldiers bent on killing and raping, Sylvie and her family sought refuge in the Nyarugusu camp, in neighboring Tanzania. In China, where coltan is processed and finds its way into cell phones, tablets, and other digital devices, we meet Laiping. Encouraged by her despondent parents to leave her village and get a job in the big city, Laiping finds her hopes of a brighter future for her and her family dashed by the Gulag-like regimen of the factory campus in the city of Shenzhen.  Fiona, on the other hand enjoys a comfortable life in Vancouver, Canada. Yet, her life turns upside down after she sexts a nude pic of herself to her boyfriend. Someone posts the pic to "Friendjam," resulting in Fiona becoming the butt of everybody's jokes and taunts and, worse, a "social outcast for the rest of summer."


Stewart does a good job developing each character and connecting what, at first, seemed three disjointed and discrete stories. Her gripping description of the Orwellian world of Chinese factories, with Big Brother watching every movement and young, sometimes underage, workers being robbed of their hard-earned wages could certainly make for a tantalizing stand-alone tale about the Chinese industrial underworld.  While Stewart's narrative portrays quite convincingly the final stages that put blue gold in the palm of our hands, her description of Sylvie's tribulations in the Nyarugusu refugee camp fails to give the reader a sense of how and why blue gold wreaks such havoc in Africa. Had she focused on Congo itself, and on the illegal mining sites where children are forced at the peril of their lives to crawl into small dugout tunnels to find blue gold, her narrative would have been more compelling and effective. Instead of a refugee, surviving in a camp in Tanzania, her heroine could have been one of the young female porters who have the ungrateful task of transporting coltan ore over great distance, from the mines to the makeshift runaways where decommissioned Antonov planes await to transport the precious ore to Rwanda and Uganda.  


Impatient readers might be jarred by the back and forth between Laiping's predicament in Shenzhen, soldering capacitors onto printed circuit boards like a robot, Sylvie's ordeal in the Nyarugusu refugee camp, and Fiona's efforts to fix her spur-of-the moment sext. Yet, the patient reader is rewarded with a philosophical ending as Stewart masterfully weaves all the threads together to form a common tale of resilience, courage, and hope. I recommend this novel, not just to young readers, but to anyone who wants to understand how anonymous people in the Global South pay the price for our ability to enjoy technologies that we take for granted.


Reviewed by Didier Gondola, Department of History, Indiana University, Indianapolis

Published in Africa Access Review (June 19, 2014) 
Copyright 2014 Africa Access




Bala Newsletter
Issue 8: June 2014

Brenda Randolph, Senior Editor   
Brenda@AfricaAccessReview.org     http://www.AfricaAccessReview.org