Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre
What to think of a 30-something-year-old schoolteacher who got fired from his job in New Hampshire, absconded from a sinking ship with his company’s money, and went on the lam into central Africa, where he became a jack-of-all-trades, bringing food and medicine into a ravaged war zone where boy soldiers cut the intestines out of their dead victims and wear them around their necks like a necklace?
Or a woman in her early fifties, a relief worker with Protestants Against Famine, manning an outpost in the bush overrun by refugees speaking many tribal tongues, where she mothers orphans, treats diseases, war wounds, and all the myriad health complications that go with malnutrition and starvation without cutting any slack for herself?
“You have to believe in heaven, and I don’t know if I do,” she says at one point.
Ruth and Hickey are the two riveting characters in Edward Hoagland’s admirable novel, Children are Diamonds. Each is flawed in ways both morally and spiritually, and each bring to Africa a different kind of American than we are used to seeing, either in other works of fiction or in the history of Western imperialism or colonization.
When it comes to novels set in faraway places few can match what Hoagland achieves in a story that unflinchingly comes to grips with the courage it takes to be human in the face of a time when there is so little to gain. That it’s a story set in what was once called the “Dark Continent” makes it all the more daunting.
The Africa that Hoagland sets his novel in is the Africa where war and hunger have become the norm of daily life. It’s the Africa of Idi Amin, whose brutal rule of Uganda has been replaced by tribal warlords who run outfits like the Lord’s Resistance Army, which kidnaps children during village raids and turns them into soldiers by a gruesome ritual that forces them to eat the organs of their murdered parents. It’s an Africa where the people have been uprooted and displaced, strafed by Russian MiGs in service to the same Arabs who hire blacks from Darfur to do their fighting in the bush. And it’s an Africa where there are no second chances.
“In Africa, everything is an emergency,” Hoagland writes in the first line of the novel. “Your radiator blows out and as you solder a repair job, Lango kids emerge from the bush, belonging to a village that you’ll never see, reachable by a path you hadn’t noticed.”
Although one is armed with a Kalashnikov, they are not depicted as threatening, only hungry. Survival for a white man like Hickey depends on his ability to keep a balance between “friendliness and mystery.”
As a writer, Hoagland cut his teeth on essays and travel pieces, with a novel tossed in every now and then, like the fisherman who fishes in streams for brook trout and occasionally tries his hand spin-casting for bass in still waters, using what he has learned about fish and his own ability to catch them. In Children are Diamonds, Hoagland combines the wisdom of a seasoned traveler with a novelist’s imagination in writing a book that takes us through a country few of us have seen, through emotions we have seldom if ever felt, and delivers us into a troubled land where unspeakable atrocities suddenly explode.
What better setting could there be for a rolling stone character like Hickey, who moves back and forth between guiding tourists and bedding airplane stewardesses to trucking food into relief camps, “pussyfooting slowly through Lord’s Resistance Army rebel territory in northern Uganda?” Hickey may be a likeable survivor — the kind you might enjoy talking to over a beer in a bar — but he becomes endearingly heroic when he throws caution to the wind for a woman, a hard-nosed relief worker, who could be his older sister.
Courage is often what we think of when someone risks life and limb for some greater good or noble purpose. Hoagland tell us that you don’t have to be a doctor to hand out aspirin or Kaopectate, and that it takes very little to be human or brave in the eyes of those looking for a shred of hope.
“The old stone-and-concrete ruins of a Catholic chapel that had been forgotten since the colonial powers had left could be reoccupied, if you chased the leopards and the cobras out and joy, I think, is, like photosynthesis for plants, an evidence of God,” he writes.
Against his belief that the laws of survival are poised to turn against him, Hickey goes into the bush where doom is about to descent on Ruth and her outpost. A temporary truce in the fighting has ended. Two white Norwegian doctors and a nurse already have been killed, and everyone who can flee — from aid workers to refugees — is fleeing, except Ruth.
She is the novel’s Mother Courage. “She shouldn’t be stranded,” says an accomplice of Hickey, who may or may not be a CIA spook. In one of their early encounters, Hickey watches her as she mixes powdered milk while a toddler clings to her — a malnourished toddler with a “head disproportionately large because skulls can’t shrink.” Leo, named after a missionary priest, becomes her African diamond.
So into the fray Hickey goes. The fact that he and Ruth are both white may or may not be a plus. There is the spearman who warns the fleeing whites of mines in the road, but refuses to guide them.
“He’s telling you you people have the atom bomb so what do you need him for?” says one of the African assistants who, though loyal to Ruth, has no love for the West.
As the opposing armies close on one another, those in the know seek a solitary escape route as “they slid into the forest like fish wiggling into a reef.” But for Hickey and Ruth there is no looking out for themselves first. Their jeep is loaded with crippled passengers, and leading the way are the healthy children ready to warn any guerrillas waiting in ambush that the vehicle behind them contains white people who are “not to be casually shot.”
In the end there may be no possibility of escape for Ruth and Hickey who defined themselves by “where we were.” And they are in Africa, where “everything is an emergency,” which is something each appears to desire and need.
Aside from being a novel about courage and morality, Children are Diamonds is a novel about landscape — a landscape of rivers and their feeder streams, of mountains and valleys that Hoagland renders with the deft touch of a cartographer and the imagination of an artist. If you want to visit Africa close and up front and don’t have the wherewithal to get there, reading this novel may be your best option.
contact Paul Lefebvre at [email protected]
For an interview with Mr. Hoagland, click here.