There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Turn-around Bird by Lucinda Wingard

This is the first, and possibly last, book review to appear in this blog. It has taken me some months to get round to writing it, partly because it’s the first review I have written since I was at school and partly because I wanted to read the book twice and say something more intelligent than THE TURN-AROUND BIRD WAS WRITTEN BY A FRIEND OF MINE. IT IS VERY GOOD. YOU SHOULD BUY IT AND READ IT. That is, however, not a bad place to start. UK readers clicking this link will be taken to the appropriate Amazon page.


The book’s cover informs us that The Turn-around Bird is ‘young adult fiction’. It is not a book for children - female genital mutilation is among the issues raised - and it is written in a style which, though direct and straight forward, has to deal with complex matters. Lucinda also makes use of an extensive vocabulary - I would have needed to look up ‘nutation’ if its meaning was not obvious from the context - and there are many unfamiliar, though well explained, African terms.  For a bright and inquisitive teenager The Turn-around Bird is a bridge between Harry Potter and the world of adult literature (and by adult literature I mean literature, not Dan Brown and James Patterson – though there is nothing wrong with a good thriller). There is also plenty here for non-young adults. Serious issues are raised, thoughts are provoked and it all happens in an appealing exotic setting.

The story is told through the eyes of Aimée Thurman, a ferociously intelligent 15 year old African-American. Being a non-African, non-American male (I was once a teenager, but that was when the Beatles were in their pomp) this is not a demographic I am often asked to identify with. A little effort was required, but Lucinda makes the task surprisingly easy.

 Aimée's parents are separated. Aimée and her twin sister Zoë live with their mother in Wisconsin while Kenneth, their much loved father, lives far away in Louisiana. Visits with him are treasured. He is a university historian and one summer vacation he takes Aimée and her twin sister Zoe to Timbuktu. The former intellectual capital of the Malian empire has much to entrance a man with Kenneth’s academic specialism, but rather less that appeals to teenage girls.

In the market Aimée and Zoë encounter a mysterious stranger. Aimée is given a small bronze turn-around bird. The bird has turned its head to pick up what it has left behind. This can be interpreted as leaving things tidy as you move ahead through life, but it also concerns connecting with your heritage.

Another Turn-around bird
This coaster belongs to my daughter and son-in-law. It was bought in Ghana

The twins and their father set off for a day’s camel trekking. Their day out is subverted by the mysterious stranger, who is really a djinn called Ifrit. Somehow, and not quite accidently, they lose their way in the desert and fall in with a tuareg caravan escorting scholars across the Sahara to Sankore University in 14th century Timbuktu. Quite how the time shift happened is a mystery, but Kenneth is thrilled by the opportunity for first hand study; the teenagers are less impressed.

Any excuse for a picture of a tuareg
We met this man at the Libyan oasis town of Ghadames

The caravan’s arrival is greeted by King Mansa Musa himself. Mansa Musa (a real historical character) ruled the Malian Empire from 1312 to 1337 and, like other enlightened war lords (Tamerlane at Samarkand comes to mind) surrounded himself with scholars and craftsmen. He founded the Sankore University and presided over a Malian golden age.

 Gradually Aimée and Zoe make friends (and enemies) and become absorbed into the life of medieval Timbuktu, though frequent visits of the djinn Ifrit keep up their expectation of eventually returning home.

At this time Mali had embraced Islam, but older religions existed alongside and we get a flavour of the debate around this clash of cultures. Lucinda presents a refreshingly positive image of Islam.

Other problems arise from cultural expectations rather than religious ones. There is the summary execution of a fraudulent businessman, the matter of female genital mutilation and issue of slavery. Lucinda does not duck out of the liberal dilemma of how to respect someone else’s culture when that culture does things you abhor, but she offers no answers. These issues arise naturally; they are picked up, looked at and put down again, there is no preaching, moralising or editorialising. The women of medieval Timbuktu accepted, even welcomed, genital mutilation; Lucinda calmly lets them present their case and gently allows Aimée to demur.  This is The Turn-around Bird‘s strength as a book for young adults. Here is the issue, she says, here is a way of looking at it you might never have considered, now you go away and think.

 I do, however, feel a need to take issue with the story’s treatment of slavery, which was as integral a part of Malian society as of classical Greek and Roman. As an African-American teenager Aimée may have much to learn about the African part of her heritage, but I am sure she would be well versed in the American part. At one point she observes ‘Slaves or not, they’re well fed and well dressed… at least slaves here are part of society and take pride in the part they play.’ I was surprised Aimée did not react much more strongly to the very existence of slavery however superficially benign. Later she fails to react when told about slaves being worked to death in the salt mines – it does not matter they are cheap. She may have partly assimilated the medieval mind-set, but surely not that much.

 It is important that Aimée and Zoe are African-American. As 21st century people they may visit the market and ‘stick out like zebras at a race course’, but it is difficult to think of a similarly pleasing simile for Swedish-Americans at Timbuktu market.

And of course they must learn about their heritage, pick up what they have left behind. The court sorcerer tells Aimée that she is descended from a family of Griots, the historian/storytellers who are the guardians of West Africa’s oral traditions. She even takes some preliminary lessons in becoming a Griot herself. I rather suspect medieval Timbuktu was not ready for a female Griot, though she has the possibility of one day playing a related role in the 21st century.  I doubt, too that as marriageable girls Aimée and Zoë would have enjoyed such freedom of movement, and their guileless flirting – though harmless by modern standards - would have landed them in even more trouble than it does. Lucinda takes some liberties, but without them she would not have a story to tell.

 Lucinda is more interested in giving us a tour of medieval Timbuktu that in the more usual aspects of an ‘adventure’ story, but eventually they emerge. Accusations are made, there is a kidnapping and there are serious doubts as to whether they will all get home together. The action, when it comes, is breathlessly paced and the book moves swiftly to its resolution.

Back home in Wisconsin, Aimée ponders on what she can tell her classmates and wonders if they will understand or even be interested. It is a problem all travellers face; she has my sympathy.

The Turn-around Bird is a teacher’s book, and I mean that as a serious compliment – this is, after all a teacher’s blog. Issues are raised and the reader is invited to think, but never told what to think. More importantly this is a book of enthusiasm. Lucinda has been somewhere, seen something, been fascinated by it and gone on to learn more and now she needs to tell everyone else. It is that desire, need even, to explain your enthusiasms to anyone that will listen that makes a teacher, and it is that which makes The Turn-around Bird so readable.

It would make a fascinating and informative read for a bright and well informed 15/16 year old. It is also well worth reading by anyone of any age who enjoys a story set in an exotic and far-distant land – and no land is more exotic and far-distant than the past. Lucinda has used her imagination to lay it all before us and I enjoyed using mine to bring it to life in my head.

I will finish as I started THE TURN-AROUND BIRD WAS WRITTEN BY A FRIEND OF MINE. IT IS VERY GOOD. YOU SHOULD BUY IT AND READ IT. UK readers clicking this link will be taken to the appropriate page on Amazon.

 Postscript There was supposed to be some another section here, explaining why this blog has uncharacteristically included a book review, how and when Lynne and I met Lucinda and Joel Wingard and a little of what I know about the background to the book. Unfortunately my trousers went into the washing machine yesterday. I now have a nice clean pair of trousers and a nice clean memory stick – I had foolishly left it in the pocket. The memory stick is so clean there is nothing on it, so I must rewrite that part. It will, though, have to wait until December; later today we set off for Burma where I can build up an even bigger bloggy backlog.

Lynne, Siân (in arms) and me with Joel and Lucinda Wingard and the younger Wingards
San Francisco State University August 1983
Joel and I both dispensed with our beards at some point, the kids grew up but apart from that
none of us look any different today

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