Book Review: BENEATH THE TAMARIND TREE, an account of 276 kidnapped girls

Sesay, Isha - Beneath the Tamarind Tree
Beneath the Tamarind Tree:
A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram
Isha Sesay

On April 14, 2014, terrorists from the Islamic group Boko Haram invaded the small town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. There, they found 276 girls in the dorms at the Government Girls Secondary School who were inadequately guarded. Boko Haram spoke out against Western education, education for girls, and democracy, and the Chibok school wasn’t the first they’d targeted, but the poor students there were determined to climb out of the poverty of the region not just for themselves but for their families. Their very dreams made them enemies of the Islamic group.

During a multi-day trek, the militants led the girls, some on foot some on vehicles, through the Sambisa Forest. Some of the girls were able to escape by jumping out of the transport trucks while others bravely fled when they were supposed to be taking bathroom breaks. The rest were taken to a camp and left under a tamarind tree which would be their home for months.

Back in Chibok, families were beside themselves with grief, but didn’t have the resources or political savvy to pressure the government to engage in a search for the missing girls. Instead, president Goodluck Jonathan claimed the kidnapping was a hoax designed to damage his reelection campaign.

Ibrahim Abdullahi, a corporate lawyer, first used the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, and Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former vice president of the World Bank for the Africa region, was the first to publicly proclaim the four words. The theme became popular on social media, and, for a time, national and international media were focused on the story. Isha Sesay, a CNN anchor and native of Sierra Leone was one of the first journalists to cover the event, and even when other journalists and networks lost interest in the girls, her attention never waned. She was on site when the first group of thirty-one girls was released (two years after their abduction), and she developed relationships with them as well as with the families of the missing girls.

In Beneath the Tamarind Tree, Sesay’s narrative centers on four of the kidnapped students, and she provides harrowing details from the confusion of the first moments Boko Haram stormed the compound to the fear of beatings and hunger, the bonds of friendship, and the solace of faith. She also recounts the Nigerian government’s sobering inaction, with President Jonathan and later administrations using the kidnapping as a political tool rather than trying to rescue the girls. Sesay also interjects her own experiences as a journalist covering the story and the pressures she was experiencing in her own life and from the network that made covering the story challenging.

I had some technical quibbles with the book: I thought there was some unnecessary repetition and I was less interested in Sesay’s personal narrative than that of the girls’, but I think this is an important account to read. We should be witness to what these girls experienced and how they have been shamefully used as pawns in a war between the Boko Haram and legitimate governments. Their story also underscores the importance of educating girls and giving them opportunities to thrive outside of communities where they have only a single option for their future. Even more critical is the fact that 112 girls are still unaccounted for. It’s unlikely that a group of 112 wealthy or Western girls would have been abandoned as these have seemingly been.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: BLACK DEATH AT THE GOLDEN GATE, the plague invades San Francisco

Until reading Black Death at the Golden Gate, I didn’t realize that San Francisco suffered not just one but two plague outbreaks in the early 1900s. Yet, efforts to eliminate the scourge were hampered by multiple factors. Joseph Kinyoun, the first doctor posted by the Marine Medical Service, the federal agency then with jurisdiction over health matters, alienated local politicians with his arrogant attitude. Plus, at this time, the germ theory of medicine was just beginning to be accepted.

City and state leaders resisted the diagnosis of plague when residents of Chinatown began dying with the telltale symptoms, including buboes, because they didn’t want to inhibit the city’s growth. Residents of Chinatown refused to cooperate because they feared officials would raze their neighborhood. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens believed whites were immune.

Only when Dr. Rupert Blue replaced Dr. Kinyoun, a more amiable administrator—and when whites also started falling victim to the disease—did officials cooperate to rid the city of the plague. Thought safe from the crisis, Dr. Blue was reassigned, but the earthquake of 1906 created a new emergency.

David Randall’s book is a well-written, well-researched, and engaging book that reveals this hidden pocket of medical history while showing how powerful political interests, greed, and racism can undermine attempts to save the public.

Book Review: MADAME FOURCADE’S SECRET WAR, a forgotten hero of WWII history

Olsen, Lynne - Madame Fourcade's Secret WarMadame Fourcade’s Secret War:
The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler
Lynne Olsen

During World War II, Alliance, one of the largest and most important spy networks in France, provided critical intelligence to the Allies through MI6. Conceived by Major Georges Loustaunau-Lacau (a.k.a. Navarre), Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was second in command. When Navarre went to Africa in 1941 to help (unsuccessfully) foment a mutiny against Vichy France, he put Fourcade in charge, and she was the leader through the end of the war. Not only was she the only female leader of a major spy network, most helmsman were captured and/or killed within six months. Olsen describes her as having “a strong will and a taste for risk and rebellion—traits not often seen in young Frenchwomen from well-to-do families like hers.” Fourcade also utilized a number of women in the network, never overlooking their possible contributions.

Because of Alliance’s importance to the Allies, MI6 provided them equipment, funds, and logistical support. In exchange, they received pivotal intelligence. One operative, Jeannie Rousseau, who befriended German soldiers in Paris and was invited to their parties, was able to learn about the V-1 and V-2 rockets including information about the research facilities. Her information led to a bombing strike that significantly stalled German’s missile program. Flamboyant artist Robert Douin walked and cycled across the Normandy coast preparing a detailed map of German installments that was invaluable during the D-Day invasion.

Their success made them a prime target for the Nazis who were angry at Alliance’s role in their setbacks and defeats. Fourcade, who was pregnant by her second-in-command, Léon Faye, and likely hid it from her associates, stayed on the run for safety and narrowly escaped capture several times. Three thousand agents worked for Alliance, and as the network grew, security risks proliferated.

After the war, Fourcade didn’t relinquish her leadership; along with Ferdinand Rodriguez, a former Nazi prisoner, she traveled to Western France and Eastern Germany to investigate the fates of 450 Alliance agents unaccounted for. Immediately after the war, she advocated for her agents, but for the most part, disappeared into history. Such a position is untenable for a women who made such a contribution, according to Lynne Olsen. Olsen argues that Fourcade’s omission in the history books can be attributed to the fact that she was a woman leader in a deeply patriarchal culture. Additionally, Alliance provided their information to MI6 for the Allies, not to de Gaulle’s Free France which put them afoul of the hero. Those who weren’t allied with de Gaulle did not receive the same favorable treatment as his confederates. Additionally, Navarre had ties to Pétain, the Vichy France leader, anathema in the post-war climate.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War restores Fourcade to her rightful place in history along with the courageous agents of Alliance. The book shows how dedicated and strong ordinary people can be–since most Alliance agents were untrained volunteers–in the face of injustice. At the same time, it tracks the steep losses of Alliance under Nazi persecution.

The book provided rich biographical details of Madeleine-Marie, from her childhood in Shanghai, and of key agents and MI6 personnel. Madame Fourcade’s Secret War depicts the anxiety of being on the move to avoid Nazis, the brief moments of camaraderie, the politics of dealing with MI6, and even the experience of agents in Nazi camps. It’s meticulously researched and comprehensive. If anything, I wish there had been a bit more tradecraft and a bit less detail on movements through France.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War will appeal to many readers: history buffs, particularly of World War II history or women’s history; readers interested in feminism and women’s contributions to history; or anyone who likes a compelling and unbelievable story of ordinary individuals fighting injustice.

Thank you to Goodreads! I won a copy of this book in a giveaway, but was under no obligation to review it.


Keefe, Patrick Radden - Say NothingSay Nothing:
A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Patrick Radden Keefe

Shortly after beginning Say Nothing, I realized how little I knew of The Troubles. Although Keefe would be the first to admit his book isn’t a comprehensive history, I found it an intriguing segway into this difficult time in Northern Ireland’s history.

Say Nothing centers on four figures: Jean McConville, a thirty-eight year old mother of ten who was taken from her home by a group of intruders in December 1972 as her children hung from her limbs; Dolours Price, a young, glamorous IRA volunteer who lead the team that perpetrated the March 1973 London bombings and subsequently became infamous, with her sister Marian, for a prolonged hunger strike; Brendan Hughes, master IRA tactician, head of the D Company, the feared “Dirty Dozen”; and Gerry Adams, a leading figure in the peace talks and the Sinn Féin party who disavowed his IRA past.

The book, which reads like a novel, traces the history of these figures as they navigate life in a city divided by sectarian conflict, where bombs and shootings are commonplace. Although Dolours, Gerry, and Brendan chose to live as revolutionaries, Jean, a Protestant living in a Catholic stronghold, was caught up in forces beyond her control.

While intimately personal, the book also chronicles the persecution of Catholics in Northern Ireland, the uncompromising ideals of the IRA volunteers, and life in prison and internment camps. I had not fully understood the process or psychological consequences of force feeding prisoners on hunger strike until reading this book, and I’ll never see the process the same way again.

Attention is also paid to the British Army and its use of “touts” or informants, a practice Keefe attributes to Brigadier Frank Kitson who became a master of counterinsurgency techniques while stationed at sites of colonial uprisings and later assigned to Northern Ireland.

As Reefe unspools the trajectory of the IRA volunteers, he traces the painful lives of the McConville orphans who were put into state custody and institutionalized. Their family was irrevocably shattered when Jean was “disappeared.” In 1999, the IRA admitted responsibility, and in 2003, her body was uncovered.

Jean McConville and her family were only one of many who were uprooted by the Troubles. But a culture of silence permeates Northern Ireland. Part of this developed before the Troubles, but because the peace settlement did not include a truth and reconciliation process, anyone who talks about their activities risks arrest and prison. Keefe wonders who should be responsible for a shared history of violence. Only the truth can answer that question, and Say Nothing is a remarkable contribution to that history.

This is such a readable book, it will appeal to true crime aficionados, mystery lovers, and history buffs, not to mentions anyone wanting to know more about the history of Northern Ireland or the IRA. In fact, one of the few flaws is that the book is so readable, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the events depict real people and real pain that deserve empathy and witness. The book is also more thematic than chronological, which makes the flow more logical and the narrative more coherent. However, at times, I got a bit murky on the timeline and had to reorient myself. These very minor issues should not keep you from picking up this book; in fact, I encourage you to read it as soon as possible.

Thank you to NetGalley and Doubleday Books for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: VIETNAM – AN EPIC TRAGEDY, 1945-1975 a comprehensive history that contributes new details

hastings, max - vietnam (2).jpgVietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975
Max Hastings

In Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975, Max Hastings chronicles conflict in the country from the end of World War II until South Vietnam fell to the communists. He lays out how America viewed Vietnam as a military problem to be solved, when the concerns were primarily political and social, and that the United States acted with hubris by not involving the Vietnamese in decisions that affected their own country. Additionally, he believes that the communists have been unfairly seen as being in the right in the conflict. Because the Northern Vietnamese so tightly controlled the media and public opinion, though, the world was not privy to the atrocities they committed which were similar to those committed on the other side, and he doesn’t let either side off easily.

The book is primarily structured chronologically, though some chapters are thematic. It is full of anecdotes from soldiers, often grunts, NCOs, or low ranking officers, providing a very intimate account of the war. At times, it reminded me a bit of Mark Bowden’s Hué 1968 writ large. Hastings draws from interviews as well as primary and secondary source material, and it seems the research is comprehensive.

In all the other Vietnam War books I’ve read, I’ve not seen any discussion of the Russian or Chinese advisers to the NVA. Hastings includes accounts from Russians who were assigned to assist surface-to-air missile teams and Chinese engineers sent to help repair bridges destroyed in bombings. Truly, just for those sections, I was glad to have read the book because it was a perspective I’ve seen nowhere else.

True to his mission of including both sides, Hastings also offers insight from Vietcong and NVA soldiers. One female doctor was killed while carrying a journal, and he quotes frequently from it. He also includes poetry and songs.

Additionally, Hastings includes a chapter on the M-16 versus the AK-47 and offers insight into why an inferior gun was rushed to the field without proper testing. He also devotes attention to Australian and New Zealand troops as well as the domestic opposition to their deployment.

Because the book is focused on what happened in country, less details are included about the political wrangling in Washington DC, although the basic outline of Presidential commitment, from Truman to Nixon, is delineated. On the Northern Vietnamese side, he reveals how Le Duan eclipsed Ho Chi Min as a power broker in the politburo and recounts personal details about Le Duan I’d not read about before.

Given the nature of the subject matter, I understand why the book is so lengthy, but I do still wonder if it could have been cut a bit since there was some repetition. Additionally, at times, the organization was a bit chaotic, with Hastings moving from topic-to-topic within a section or even a single paragraph. I also thought at times, his language was a little flippant or silly, for example when he wrote, “streetwise—or rather, paddywise.” I did like the maps, which were crisp, clear, and easy to understand. The included photos were useful, though in this case, I’d like to have more rather than less.

Overall, this was a very interesting book and offered new material in a very crowded genre. I wouldn’t recommend it as the first or only book to read on the Vietnam War, but maybe the second or third!