Hardcover, 304 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Greenwillow Books
I have chosen to interpret the theme this month as the physical and emotional spaces in which one exists. This is why I have chosen to give a closer look at The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly. I don’t want to just evaluate the novel in terms of its readability but I also want to look at the spaces in which the protagonist and her sister live and find meaning–both in themselves and the world around them.
The official synopsis is as follows:
Two sisters from the Philippines, abandoned by their father and living in impoverished circumstances in Louisiana, fight to make their lives better.
Soledad has always been able to escape into the stories she creates. Just like her mother always could. And Soledad has needed that escape more than ever in the five years since her mother and sister died and her father moved Sol and her youngest sister from the Philippines to Louisiana. Then he left, and all Sol and Ming have now is their evil stepmother, Vea. Sol has protected Ming all this time, but then Ming begins to believe that Auntie Jove—their mythical, world-traveling aunt—is really going to come rescue them. Have Sol’s stories done more harm than good? Can she protect Ming from this impossible hope?
Soledad has memories of the Philippines, of Cebu, of beautiful beaches and fresh fruit, of a mother who told stories, of a time when the world was warm, and life was wonderful. Where she wasn’t a minority or a statistic. The memories are fading but they are there and Soledad hangs on to them, trying to impart to her younger sister, Ming, some of the warmth of home.
They live in a shabby apartment in a crumbling complex; their neighbours are all people who don’t fit or who don’t have enough. The apartment is very much their stepmother Vea’s except for two spaces: the first one is the room where Soledad and her sister sleep, dream, play, or exile themselves when their stepmother’s evil doings get on their nerves. The second one is the cupboard that their stepmother sends them into when they get on her nerves. Not that Soledad minds going into the closet; her imagination is a rich thing and she uses it to transform the cupboard into a castle tower, a library, or whatever strikes her mood.
The third space is the junk yard Soldedad and her friends scavenge (illegally) for materials to build Ming a tree house–not that Soledad has a tree she can put the house into but her as sister seldom asks for things, she wants to give her this. The image of the junkyard full of things unwanted by their owners is particularly resonant because Soledad feels so home in it as she too thinks herself of something unwanted–abandoned as they were by their father.
The other place Soledad and her sister exist is in their minds, in their imaginations, a place their mother nourished. She told Soledad stories of wonder and magic, stories of a sister called Jove, stories that Soledad in turn tells Ming. Ming, sad and tired of being sad, believes these stories without question and is determined that her mother’s imaginary sister, Jove, or Auntie Jove as they call her, will come and save them from their evil stepmother.
The Land of Forgotten Girls is about sisters, even ones who died and now appear in corners giving you advice when you most need it. Soledad’s voice is fresh and a little brash as suits her age. She is not overly cynical but has a sweet sense of innocence despite the difficulties she has faced in her short life. Displaced from home and the people she knows, she has to depend on her stepmother for everything.
It would be so easy to vilify the woman but Kelly is carefully ensures that Vea retains a humanity about her so while from a child’s perspective she seems unkind and cruel, the adult reading the book (or even the more astute reader) will realize that the woman is just trying to make the best of a really bad situation. Soledad begins the journey hating her stepmother who admittedly isn’t the most patient or understanding kind but by the end of the book, she is able to accept (albeit grudgingly) the nourishing role Vea plays in their lives.
Another element of the novel that I adored was the fact that there’s no white saviour character. Instead there’s an old Chinese granny who doesn’t even speak proper English but whose home becomes an unexpected refuge for the sisters. She offers the girls a place to be safe.
The Land of Forgotten Books is one of those rare books that makes you see the sadness the world has but also shows the little happinesses that make life wonderful anyway. The book doesn’t offer you any miraculous solutions but what it does give is hope. And when you have hope, you have the world.
Buy this book, for your child, for your library, for yourself. Buy it and read it.