By Elizabeth Wroten
Summer Reading Review: Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson
On 26, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: When their mother catches their father with another woman, twelve year-old Blessing and her fourteen-year-old brother, Ezikiel, are forced to leave their comfortable home in Lagos for a village in the Niger Delta, to live with their mother’s family. Without running water or electricity, Warri is at first a nightmare for Blessing. Her mother is gone all day and works suspiciously late into the night to pay the children’s school fees. Her brother, once a promising student, seems to be falling increasingly under the influence of the local group of violent teenage boys calling themselves Freedom Fighters. Her grandfather, a kind if misguided man, is trying on Islam as his new religion of choice, and is even considering the possibility of bringing in a second wife.
But Blessing’s grandmother, wise and practical, soon becomes a beloved mentor, teaching Blessing the ways of the midwife in rural Nigeria. Blessing is exposed to the horrors of genital mutilation and the devastation wrought on the environment by British and American oil companies. As Warri comes to feel like home, Blessing becomes increasingly aware of the threats to its safety, both from its unshakable but dangerous traditions and the relentless carelessness of the modern world. Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is the witty and beautifully written story of one family’s attempt to survive a new life they could never have imagined, struggling to find a deeper sense of identity along the way.
I absolutely loved this book and then I realized the author was white. And now I’m not sure if that changes how I view the book. Which isn’t to say an author has to limit themselves to their own gender, culture, experience, etc. but their research needs to be solid. If the relationships and themes are authentic and transcend anything superficial then the author has succeeded.
This was such an easy book to fall into. The setting was finely drawn.The life before and after the father’s affair is discovered. The living situation at the grandfather’s compound. The political situation in the delta region. The characters were likable and had depth. The slightly kooky grandfather. The grandmother who had learned to work within the traditional system to earn freedoms. The new wife who was loud and unabashed.
But Tiny Sunbirds is really the story of Blessing’s ascendency. She begins as rather shy and retiring, passive even. Used to a life with enough to eat, running water, a flush toilet, private schools, and air conditioning. The move to Warri breaks her away from this world and becomes an eye opening experience. Girls are not highly valued. Ultimately, when money runs thin, Blessing is pulled out of school, where she wasn’t especially welcome anyway. Instead of wilting away, though, Blessing connects with her grandmother who begins to teach her to be a midwife. Through this Blessing finds a purpose and a future. She comes to grips with the physical violence of her old home. Slowly she comes out of her shell and begins to see and understand the world around her, including some of the choices her mother makes.
In counterpoint to this is her brother Ezikiel. It is painful to watch Ezikiel flounder. He has already lost his father, a poor role model to begin with, at a critical time, so he probably suffers the most as his mother slips aways. His grandfather means well, but does not take Ezikiel under his wing the way the grandmother does Blessing. Ezikiel has a severe allergy to groundnuts which makes eating nearly impossible. There are few alternatives to the groundnut oil used to fry food that cannot be kept refrigerated and no one seems to understand the severity of the allergy. When money runs short Ezikiel’s medication supply nearly runs out, leaving him in constant danger. As a boy, a lot of pressure is placed on him to do well in school and to learn to lead the family. Ezikiel tries to rise the occasion and although we don’t hear his internal struggles, it is clear he places a lot of stress on himself. Add to this Blessing beginning medical training when that is what Ezikiel wants and her growth when his seems stunted. It’s a toxic recipe. Because he is older he may have a better understanding of what went on in their house before their mother left their father and may have a better grasp on how their mother may be earning money to pay for his medicine and school. When he fails his school exams that would lead to medical school his downward spiral really begins.
I really felt for their mother. She is between a rock and hard place. She has endured physical abuse at the hands of a man she broke with her family over. When she discovers his affair, she returns home with her tail between her legs and her two children in tow. The family desperately needs money, so she goes to work. While she deals with the emotional fall out of her marriage, most of which we can only assume she is dealing with, she is forced to work more and more. The ones who suffer most are her children, whom she has little time for. She sees the money she is providing, that puts food on the table and pays school fees, as a substitute for her presence and attention; poor substitute, but a necessary one. Of course her children want more, but I doubt she could have given more under the circumstances. It is never entirely clear whether some of the money she earns comes from prostitution, but she clearly struggles with the option. She also watches her daughter grow away from her and need her less, which must have been hard. She watches as Blessing connects more with the mother she never fully understood. Blessing assumes her mother sees her father in her and dislikes that reminder, but I think what really troubles her mother is seeing her grandmother in her. Someone she did not connect or agree with for most of her life.
I also like the second wife, Celestine. The grandfather decides, at some point, that he wants a son and needs to take a younger, second wife. When Celestine arrives she is obnoxious. No one can stand her and yet she persists. She is poorly educated and because she is older than Blessing and married to a much older man you forget that she can’t be more than 18 or 19, a child herself. As the story progresses, however, she really comes into her own. She makes plenty of foolish mistakes along the way, some that are funny, some that are heartbreaking, some that are cringe-inducing. But she learns and she becomes a part of the family, accepted and accepting.
This is technically an adult book and it deals with some very mature themes, like female genital mutilation and physical abuse, that I think younger audiences need someone to walk them through, but Blessing is a charming character. This would be a good suggestion for more mature readers who like serious books, readers interested in Nigeria, or as an English class option. Although Blessing finds herself in a different situation from most Americans, I think the theme of finding yourself in very different circumstances and with a sink-or-swim dilemma is universal. Did Watson succeed in writing a book that was true to the culture of Nigeria, I don’t know. In terms of characters and themes I think she did, though.