Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Club: Little Bee

I finished Little Bee a couple of days ago and lots of ideas from the book have been rolling around in my head. The idea that is the most sensitive right now is the idea of making a difference.  The story is filled with people who are asked to do things for other people which turn out to be life-changing, life-saving or life-ending.

For years I worked for a non-profit organization that did work in developing countries with poor communities.  We helped communities build schools, taught women basic reading, math and business classes. I left the non-profit world with a sour taste in my mouth.  This is partially because I got pushed out of my position when I got pregnant (my boss fired the next girl who got pregnant too--highly illegal, I know, but not worth the fight) and partially because the last couple of months/year of work were marred with shrinking budgets, lots of stress and a boss who, I swear, was taking lessons from Michael Scott.  I don't know that the work we were doing was making a difference.  I was in charge of designing our programs and providing the information for donor reports. I know what we were saying to the people who gave us money and I know what was really happening and those two things were not always the same.  I know what we were trying to do but I question if we were really accomplishing it.

In his poem, In Memory of W. B. Yeates, Auden wrote,

"Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen"

I feel that way about non-profit work (Now, please don't get me wrong I'm not saying that non-profit work shouldn't go on...there are lots of organizations that I love and I show my love with financial support).  I got into non-profit work after living in Ecuador.  I came home and ached for a way to help the people I love.  But seven years later Ecuador has her madness and her poverty still.

One of the things I liked about Little Bee was the way it explored the complex theme of helping people and charity. When Little Bee finds that Andrew has hanged himself she thinks, "Of course I must save him, whatever it costs me, because he is a human being." Recognizing that if she calls the police they will send her back to Nigeria and certain death she then thinks, "Of course I must save myself, because I am a human being too" (Spoiler alert.  She does not save him. p. 194).  Helping other people is hard.  It is often inconvenient and sometimes seems to be in direct opposition to helping ourselves.  I liked that in the book people didn't always help one another and their efforts were sometimes misplaced and even though they thought they were helping other people they were really helping themselves. Sometimes we don't help those who are around us. Sometimes we are not charitable.  Sometimes we do. Sometimes we are.

Esteemed bookclub member Rachel, said, "I really liked "Little Bee" for the narrative voice (particularly in the first 2/3 of the book), but I didn't love the storyline itself. I've found this to be the case with some of the Pulitzer winners as well."  I agree with that.  I loved Little Bee.  I loved Sarah. But I didn't like the story as much as I liked them.

Ok, that's all I got.
What did you think?
And, what book are we going to read next?  Does anyone have a book out there on their night stand that they are dying to finish?


  1. Sallee,

    I haven't read the book yet, or this blog post, b/c I just got the book from the library. Will come back and post something when I've finished it soon. I know you'll forgive me for this when I mention that I am in the middle of moving!

  2. I just posted a long comment and it got lost. How sickening. I'll try to get up the courage to write it again, but right now I don't have the brain power.

  3. Oooooh Sallee, I read your post about the book, but I am now more interested in the personal story you share rather than the book. WOW. However, here are a few of my thoughts on the book:
    I'm in the same boat with you and Rachel--I enjoyed the characters and language (especially a few quotes throughout the book) more than the story itself. But there was a story that moved me in a way that I wish the book had been able to. In the back of my copy was a reader's guide of sorts with an interview with the author. He wrote that the book was inspired by a newspaper clipping of a father and son living in the UK illegally. They were taken to a detention center and were awaiting deportation when the father was found having hung himself in a holding cell. It turns out that there was a loophole in the law that allows children to stay in the country if the parent that brought them into the country is no longer living (or something like that). The father had taken his own life to provide a way for his son to stay. Something about that little blurb rang more true than the novel itself.

    While I didn't connect fully with the story (after making it all that way, I'm doubtful Little Bee would have been tripped up by having to call the police and that Sarah would have made her do it instead of Lawrence, who I imagine is wearing a villainous black cape and twirling the edge of his greasy black mustache or whatever bad guys do after throwing a victim onto the train tracks), I was both troubled and intrigued by Little Bee's situation because I suspect it's not unique, especially when there are more than 11 million people living in our own country without the proper paperwork (or so said NPR yesterday). Plus, my parents are currently working with many recent immigrants and have stories that are very haunting about good people trying to live underneath the radar.

    The book did, however, did trigger certain important memories for me. I lived for a few months in Peru with a family who had had a very different life than my own. The mother, Eida, and I were especially close and shared the same faith. She once asked me what my favorite hymn was and I pointed to a song and rambled on about how it had helped me through a hard time ( no doubt some sort of high school boy trouble or something equally trivial). I then asked her the same question, and she pointed to a tiny hymn that I didn't know too well. She spoke of life under the reign of the Shining Path Guerrillas and of having to leave everything and move to the city. She explained that she would sing this hymn to herself when she went out to buy food for her family each day. In those days, everyone left the house only when they absolutely had to and carried a white piece of fabric or paper to wave in surrender and to show they weren't part of the fighting going on in the streets. Needless to say, it was an important conversation that changed the way I look at my "problems." Imagining what will happen "when the men come and . .. " is quite different for each of us, but I'm pretty sure I haven't a clue about what harrowing things have and can and do happen to others around the world.
    The trouble only starts for me when I think of all the help that is needed, even within my own community. For me, this has always been difficult, wanting to help, but not having all the money and time and energy or know how needed to really fix anything in any large way. I do what I can one on one and feel inadequate in the meantime. So, I probably will not reread this book, but I hope to carry from it a reminder to look beyond myself and find ways to be more grateful and giving even when I think there is little difference I can make.
    Oh, and on a side note--four year olds have slightly more developed language skills than our little friend Charlie. Sheesh.