“Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse,” by Edward Hoagland, June 2013, Arcade Publishing, NYC. Hardcover, 232 pages, $23.95. Available at Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven and at Edgartown Books.
“Children Are Diamonds” is an important book. But Edward Hoagland’s latest novel is not a light beach read.
The story of life and death in the post-millennial African Sudan is disturbing. You will be grateful that having the right sunblock is your problem du jour. For example, in the Sudan of kaleidoscopic alliances and nut bag revolutionary groups, six-year-olds face the problem of choice when a rival tribe or political force overruns their village.
Do they choose to be slaughtered along with their parents or agree to murder their parents and to eat their vital organs, thereby qualifying themselves to become “zombies,” capable of committing similar atrocities on strangers at command of genocidal terrorist groups?
The phrase “Life is cheap” does not begin to describe what we see through the eyes of Hickey, the novel’s protagonist. Nor is it a simple statement, because amid the charnel house of African nations along the Nile are groups of missionaries, aid workers, and locals committed to sustaining the outlines of a moral compass for the society in which they work.
“Children Are Diamonds” records the daily choices about who will live and who will not, choices made by warring fighters and by helpers who have too few resources, too little time, and too many wretched bodies to help.
We learn also that governments make the same decisions with the same brutal results on a grander scale. Hickey, a realist, pragmatist, and faintly larcenous, is drawn to the suffering and the heroics of the aid workers but points out that refugees are simply pawns in the global politics. Hickey notes with dispassionate irony that refugees and local residents now being fed by American aid died in the hundreds of thousands several years earlier when our aid was withheld because the central Sudanese government was allied with powers unfriendly to us.
The principal plotline involves Hickey’s plan to transport children afflicted with cleft palates, eye disorders, along with a former zombie and several aid workers for a chance at life and health in Uganda.
Mr. Hoagland, a longtime Island resident, delivers his story in long form conversational sentences – what are typically called “run-on” sentences by language parsers. Mr. Hoagland uses the form in a disciplined, readable way. What are side trips from the point of the sentence in poor writing become nuggets of fact and history that enhance the point. They carry the reader effortlessly. In these excursionary details, Mr. Hoagland often describes the devil.
An arresting aspect of Mr. Hoagland’s book is the overriding pragmatism about death and living we encounter, practiced by rogue tribesmen and world powers. Tribesmen demand matricide because it ensures that the children they select cannot return to their villages without fear of reprisal and because the resulting emotional catatonia enables them for future violence. Nations make policy decisions to withhold food from war victims, ensuring the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Cleaner work, but geometrically more lethal than guerilla atrocities.
Mr. Hoagland also presents examples of opportunities to enjoy life and experience serenity and joy among his characters. Hickey’s ruminations about the power of the African land and his rollicking dalliance with a middle-aged aid worker, a rape victim, present the therapeutic nature of love and nurturing.
As narrator, Hickey is a centered voice. He is telling us what happens and why it happens. No bombast or fury at the waste and carelessness about human life. He’s got gold nuggets secreted in his crotch, cash in his money belt, and an accompanying unwillingness to leave without helping.
So he is tasked with evacuating kids and aid workers for several hundred miles in a Land Rover, through war zone pockets variously held by warring tribes and checkpoints where the end often comes suddenly and capriciously.
“Children Are Diamonds” is 232 pages. You should read it, but you will not read it quickly. Mr. Hoagland gives us considerations and choices of our own to make on every page.