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Five More to Go: Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King [in The Booklist Reader]

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste’s indelible debut, Beneath the Lion’s Gate (2010), put Ethiopian historical fiction on countless best-of, must-read, and award lists. Her monumental new novel draws inspiration from her great-grandmother, who as the eldest – and in Mulan-style! – answered Emperor Haile Selassie’s demand for first sons to fight against Fascist Italy despite her father’s objections, insisting that her brothers were too young. In her author’s note, Mengiste explains that her brave predecessor “represents one of the many gaps in European and African history,” namely, “Ethiopian women who fought alongside men.”

In 1974, just before Selassie is dethroned, Hirut arrives in Addis Ababa bearing a box filled with “the many dead that insist on resurrection.” Almost four decades earlier, in 1935, Hirut was an orphaned servant who followed her master, Kidane, and his wife, Aster, into battle against Mussolini’s invading troops. The women are initially relegated to being caretakers but prove themselves to be fierce warriors. Mengiste’s extraordinary characters – shrewd Kidane, militant Aster, the enigmatic cook, narcissistic Italian commander Fucelli, conflicted photographer Ettore, elusive prostitute Fifi, even haunted Selassie – epitomize the impossibly intricate ties between humanity and monstrosity, and the unthinkable, immeasurable cost of survival.

To learn more about Ethiopian history through resonating fiction and nonfiction both, make sure to peruse these memorable titles, each linked to their Booklist reviews.


Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

As patriarch, the good doctor Hailu is a proud man highly trained to save the dying, yet he can do nothing more for his beloved wife, who lies shriveled in a hospital bed. His elder son, Yonas, tries to hold his family together, helpless when his young daughter becomes seriously ill and his wife is crushed by the fear of potential loss. Hailu’s younger son, Dawit, remains idealistic, fueled by a rash temper. Ethiopia’s horrific 1974 revolution, which ousted a 3,000-year-old monarchy in favor of the brutal Derg regime, is about to shatter the Hailu family; the father’s humanity, the elder son’s responsibility, and the younger son’s morals will all be tested. As if arranging pieces of an intricate puzzle, Mengiste presents an epic historical moment of which too few are aware, laying the most atrocious acts next to radiantly tender moments, next to utter cowardice and utmost bravery. The result proves unforgettable.


Cry of the Giraffe by Judie Oron

In her native village, young Wuditu – and the rest of her family – are called falasha, a derogatory term reserved for Jewish people. Their own name for themselves is Beta Israel, meaning “the house of Israel.” Despite their centuries-long history grounded in Ethiopia, Ethiopian Jews are treated as outcasts. Every new generation is told of their great history in a place called Yerusalem, a promised homeland to which the Beta Israel will someday return. That time becomes suddenly now: with growing violence during dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam’s brutal reign, Wuditu and her family must begin an arduous trek to safety, following assurances of rescue and evacuation to Yerusalem. After she becomes separated, Wuditu will have to survive the most terrifying three-year odyssey to finally reach salvation. For Canadian journalist/author Oron, Giraffe represents her own personal journey: two of the main characters are based on her own adopted daughters.


Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

On September 20, 1954, conjoined twin sons violently enter the world in Missing Hospital’s Operating Theater 3 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Born to an Indian nun who dies and a British surgeon who vanishes in shocked stupor, they are named Marion (for the pioneering American gynecologist) and Shiva (who was “all but dead until [his adoptive mother-doctor] invoked Lord Shiva’s name”). Now at 50, Marion Praise Stone examines his life in hindsight: the twins’ Ethiopian childhood that was inextricably intertwined with their nanny’s daughter, Genet; the twins’ cleaving in adulthood when Marion is forced to flee their homeland; Marion’s surgical training in a New York inner-city hospital; the shattering events that lead to reunion; and his ultimate return home to Ethiopia. Marion must repay a debt: “What I owe Shiva most is this: to tell the story.” Verghese’s formidable literary skills both unravel and bind the twins’ story amidst the chaos of immigration, colonialism, missionary life, political occupation, and so much more.


There Is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue Her Country’s Children by Melissa Fay Greene

The jarring HIV/AIDS statistics are unfathomable – and Greene is certainly thorough in providing vigilantly documented numbers. Children are, not surprisingly, some of the most tragic victims: in 2005, Ethiopia’s population of 1,563,000 AIDS orphans was the second highest concentration in the entire world. Amidst the pandemic, one woman, Haregewoin Teferra, refused to abandon the children. When she lost her husband and then her eldest daughter, Haregewoin almost lost her own will to live. “There is no me without you,” went the lyrics of a pop song – for Haregewoin, “A child cannot live without a mother and father. A mother or father cannot live without the child.” Children brought Haregewoin back to life. Greene captures Haregewoin’s odyssey – interspersed with data, public policy, politics, history – with eyes wide open. She was extraordinarily heroic and also deeply flawed . . . she was no saint, and still, she performed miracles.


The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History by Aida Edemariam

Ethiopian Canadian journalist Edemariam presents the story of her late nonagenarian grandmother, Yètèmegnu, and through her long, eventful life, entwines the multilayered history of twentieth-century Ethiopia. Married at age eight to a 30-year-old priest with poetic tendencies, Yètèmegnu bears witness to almost a century of jarring events and inextricably linked private and public spheres. Ultimately, Yètèmegnu’s many hardships and triumphs – the children she bears and those she loses, her struggle to keep her family’s lands, her determination to raise and educate her surviving children – dovetail with the tumultuous, often violent decades of Ethiopia’s imperial rule, from Italian invasion and occupation during WWII to famine, revolution, and coup d’état.

Published: “Five More to Go: Maaza Mengiste’s THE SHADOW KING,” The Booklist Reader, September 25, 2019


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