Thursday, July 20, 2017

Books About Young Children Left with a Relative, Part Two: Bianca Marais's "Hum If You Don't Know the Words"

By now, I'm hoping you're familiar with Indies Introduce, the American Booksellers Association that tries to highlight debut authors. About ten booksellers make up a semi-annual panel, one each for adult and kids titles, and this group reads through 50-60 titles that are submitted by publishers. Each is only allowed a certain number of submissions, so I'm sure there's some politics as to which ones make the cut.

The year I was on the panel, our selections including Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, and Antoine Laurain's The President's Hat, all of which went on to great success at Boswell and elsewhere. I enthusiastically recommended being on the panel to Jason, our adult buyer, and what a treasure trove this experience has been. He's read all kinds of great books he might not have read under usual circumstances, and his enthusiasm has been infectious, leading me to read Finn Murphy's The Long Haul and Augustus Rose's The Readymade Thief.*

However, the book from the Indies Introduce that has found the greatest success among Boswell booksellers is definitely Bianca Marais's Hum If You Don't Know the Words, which has now been read by no less than five Boswellians. I took that as a dare, and recently brought the number of fans to six.

The novel is set in South Africa in the 1970s. The Conrads live in a whites-only suburb of Johannesburg, where the father, Keith, is a supervisor at a mine. Boisterous Robin, along with her much quieter sister Cat, are taken care of by Mabel, their black maid. There's tension, not between whites and blacks, but between Brits and Afrikaners, a legacy of the Boer War.

Meanwhile, Beauty Mbali is a teacher with two children, one of whom, Nomsa, is going to high school far away. What she doesn't know is that Nomsa, a brave woman who was taught to stand up for justice, is helping lead a very large protest, in response to government decree that students must be taught in Afrikaans, not English. But the government retailiates violently and Nomsa disappears. And Beauty sets off to find her, not knowing if she's even alive.

At this same time, Robin's family is attacked at a party, leaving Robin abandoned. She and Mabel are taken away, with Robin eventually put in the care of Edith, her mother's sister. And this is where I was reminded of Simon Van Booy's Father's Day. Robin is not much different than Van Booy's Harvey in age, and just as precocious. Like Jason, Edith is in no position to take care of a little girl. She's trying to be good, and even gives up her job as a flight attendant, but, well, things don't quite as well for Marais's characters. She winds up bringing in Beauty, who is hiding out in Johannesburg while trying to find her daughter.

The story alternates between Robin and Beauty's stories. Robin slowly gets a new family, including Maggie, the librarian heroine (and who doesn't love that), young Morrie Goldman and his family, Edith's friend gay friend Victor, and King George, a mixed-race gentleman who lives in the basement. Even the evil Afrikaner social worker turns out to be not quite what Robin expected. But the true heart of the story is the relationship between Robin and Beauty.

Putnam has been positioning the novel as great for readers of The Help and The Secret Life of Bees. Marais had several sensitivity readings, as she was well aware that a white writer portraying the lives of black South Africans during Apartheid could run into problems, particularly because the story is a little more nuanced.

Here's what our buyer Jason Kennedy wrote about Hum If You Don't Know the Words: "Bianca Marais does a remarkable job at breathing life into such a sad and tense time in South Africa's history; this is a book many people should have on their must-read lists of 2017."

In addition, Sharon called the novel "terrific," Anne proclaimed it "great" (informally, while she so me carrying around the advance reading copy), and Jane regaled me with several email messages about how good the book was and what interesting discussions it would spark. In other words, perfect for book clubs!

We're so excited about this upcoming visit from Bianca Marais to the Lynden Sculpture Garden in River Hills on Sunday, July 23, 2 pm, as part of their Women's Speaker Series. Both Jason and I have met Ms. Marais, Jason at Book Expo during the Indies Introduce presentation, and I at a Putnam reception for several authors in Chicago.  We both can vouch that Marais is the kind of author you really want to meet, which you can't always say about debut authors. You will love her!

Here's my suggestion. The book is just out and your book club has probably selected books out for at least a few months, if not the whole season. But why don't one or two of you consider attending Sunday's event? You can decide for yourself if it works for your group, and you'll be ahead of the game at getting material to prepare for the discussion.

Want a sneak peak? Marais will be speaking to Mitch Teich on Lake Effect on Friday's show.

Tickets are $30, including the book, tax, admission, and light refreshments. If you belong to the Lynden Scultpure Garden, the cost is $25. Visit their website or call them at (414) 446-8794. And I have to say, it wouldn't be a bad thing to read Father's Day before or after.

*Augustus Rose is coming to Boswell on Tuesday, August 22, 7 pm.

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