The second of three books from Cinco Puntos Press that I want to feature, This Thing Called the Future by J.L. Powers, due out next month, is a heartbreakingly honest and ultimately uplifting story of one girl coming into her own through the struggles of a tough life.
Summary: Khosi lives with her beloved grandmother—Gogo—her little sister Zi and her weekend mother in a matchbox house on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. In that shantytown, it seems like somebody is dying all the time. Billboards everywhere warn of the disease of the day. Her Gogo goes to a traditional healer when there is trouble, but her mother, who works in another city, who is wasting away before their eyes, refuses to go even to the doctor. She is afraid and Khosi doesn’t know what it is that makes the blood come up from her choking lungs. Witchcraft? A curse? AIDS? Can Khosi take her to the doctor? Gogo asks. No, says Mama, Khosi must stay in school. Only education will save Khosi and Zi from the poverty and ignorance of the old Zulu ways.
School, though, is not bad. There is a boy her own age there, Little Man Ncobo, and she loves the color of his skin, so much darker than her own, and his blue-black lips, but he mocks her when a witches’ curse, her mother’s wasting sorrow and a neighbor’s accusations send her and Gogo scrambling off to the sangoma’s hut in search of a healing potion.
Review: This was a lovely book to read aside from anything else. Powers beautifully weaves magic and science together within the contemporary context of a South African village plagued with AIDS and violence. I have never been to South Africa, so I can’t say for sure, but the world she drew felt completely real–witches and curses and all. Aside from anything else, I’d recommend this book for its beauty and magic.
But it does have a lot of value specifically for troubled teens, as well.
The parents are mostly absent, and nicely morally ambiguous, Khosi is being raised by her grandmother, often finds herself in the role of the adult, is attacked multiple times by a drunk man who wants to rape her, she’s poor, and lives through the death of her mother from disease. Many many children living through hardship would find echoes of their own lives in this book. Migrant teens from South Africa might recognize their families’ customs, migrant teens from other places might recognize the clash between the western medical system and customs and their own traditions.
But what I think is most valuable about this book is the growth Khosi experiences as a direct response to the things that she lives through. I think that we have a tendency to think of kids as porcelain dolls to be broken or saved, as victims of the world around them. And that certainly has some validity. But they are also people. And any person who survives something large and painful–I mean really goes through it, instead of merely continuing to exist–is going to grow as a result. And sometimes that growth is quite profound.
Something that struck me in the documentary Ask Us Who We Are about foster care youth, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, was that so many of those teens had decided because of their experiences that they needed to go out and help others. Kids who have survived adversity and come out on the other side often have a much larger portion of compassion and determination than their peers who have been given everything they need.
In This Thing Called the Future, Khosi comes away from her experiences with this gift of determination and compassion–she wants to be a healer. She also comes away much stronger and more able to care for herself and her little sister, as a result of her experiences. And she is much more self-aware than most teens her age–she has a goal, a calling, and she knows the steps she’ll take to make it happen. These are big, huge gifts that surviving adversity bestows, and Powers does a great job of capturing them on the page.
And this is vital. The teen who is living through death and poverty and violence and neglect knows that she is in pain. But she may not know that there is a payoff if she goes through it. And it’s not a consolation prize. I would not wish pain and adversity on anyone. But we don’t get to choose our lives, at least the ones we are born into. If a teen has to live through pain, it might really help her to hear that this pain will make her stronger if she can just make it to the other side with courage and determination.
I think teens living through hard times need hope, first of all, to help them get through. I think this book gives that, and more. It’s inspiring. It takes the victim and makes her a strong, valuable young woman with a future–what I want all hurting teens to feel.