Sunday, January 11, 2015

Secrets in the fire by Henning Mankell

Secrets in the fire is one of the saddest, most heart-breaking books I have ever read.  It is certainly only suitable for our most mature senior Primary students.  That said I am glad I read this book and that for a moment in time I was able follow the life journey of this brave little girl in war torn Africa.

Sofia is living a peaceful and simple life in a small village in Mozambique :

"They had lived in that village, all their lives. What Sofia remembered most clearly was the village of round huts with their neatly flattened roofs of palm leaves.  That was where she had been born, and where Maria and Alfredo had been born.  When she was a baby, her father, Hapakatanda, had lifted her towards the sky to let her greet the sun."

Her life is shattered when the bandits arrive.  They murder all the village occupants and only a handful of people survive - including Sofia, her mother Lydia, her sister Maria and young brother.  On the run, the family become refugees moving from village to village and barely surviving.  Finally they reach safety and make a new home.  One day, the white priest, urges everyone to attend an important meeting where he explains the dangers of landmines.  Sofia knows she must stay on the path but when the path is muddy after the rain the boundary lines become  unclear. Sofia steps off the path while playing with her beloved older sister Maria.  Sofia is critically injured and her sister is killed.  Now Sofia must take on a new challenge adapting to her life with prosthetic legs. Her main comfort comes from the words of wisdom offered years ago by the village elder :

"It was old Muazena who told Sofia and Maria about the secrets in the fire.  Every flame has a secret.  If you sit at the right distance from the fire you can look so deeply into the dancing flames that you can foresee what is going to happen in the future."
"Every day is a plant that you should nurse and water, keep clear of weeks and one day harvest. Every plant represents a day in your life that you haven't lived yet."

Sofia experiences so much pain but her spirit is resilient.  She makes some generous friends (young, old rich and poor), she learns to walk again and with help she is able to find her place once again in the village with her family close by.  You can read more details of the plot here.

Secrets in the fire was originally published in Sweden under the title Eldens Hemlight (1995).  It was the winner of Sankei Children's Publishing Culture Award in 2002.

Secrets in the fire is based on a true story.  There are two sequels.  You should also look for A long walk to Water and Figgy in the world.  Here is a set of brief teaching notes from Amnesty International.

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