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Review: Broken Memory (Elisabeth Combres)

Title: Broken Memory
Author: Elisabeth Combres
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction, International
Pages: 135
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Challenges: YA, POC
FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my school's library
Summary (from the inside flap): Hiding behind the old sofa, five-year-old Emma does not see her mother being murdered, but she hears everything. And when the killers finally leave, the young Tutsi girl somehow manages to stumble away, mainly because of her mother's last words: "You must not die, Emma!" Eventually Emma is taken in by an old Hutu woman, who risks her own life to hide her. But long after the war ends, Emma is still haunted by nightmares. Gradually, through her growing fiendship with another young victim and the gentle support of an old man charged with helping child survivors, she fins the courage to begin to heal and remember.

Moments of grace and tenderness undercut the terror and pain of this powerful story of the genocidal war in Rwanda. This book reminds us that we could have done something and did not. Broken Memory won the Prix NRP (Nouvelle Revue Pedagogique) and the Prix des lyceens allemands, in which German high school students select their favorite book.

Review: Since I have a Masters Degree in History and was a world history teacher, I have a soft spot for historical fiction, but particularly the history of the downtrodden. What is it about war and genocide that so fascinate me?

This novel is small in size (in physical shape and in number of pages with only 135), but it is big in theme and importance. Emma's experience as a small child during the April 1994 genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda at the hands of many Hutu, is devastating, raw, and beyond our worst imaginations. But this book does not center on the genocide's horrific events, rather it is a study in the resiliency of humanity, the ability of certain people to reach out and help others at risk to their own lives, and how we can overcome even the worst to find good in the world around us.

Through the eyes of a child we learn of Mukecuru, the woman who hid Emma during the genocide, and her gentle ways. Emma also has encounters with another child who lost his entire family. His response to the events was much stronger than Emma's, but through their shared experience they become friends and help one another. The descriptions of Rwanda itself are also well done, showing how a society moves on after an event that turns it upside down. We read of the gacaca (local trials), going to look for loved one's graves, and trying to return to "normal" life without family and friends.

The story is told in such a calm manner and flowed; this is an easy read for an adult and I am sure that young adult readers will also enjoy it.

I also liked the author included a historical overview at the end of the book so that readers who are not familiar with the events of the Rwanda genocide can read a straightforward background.

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