G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016
Like many boys in Mali, 13-year-old Amadou and his 6-year-old brother Seydou left their family’s drought-stricken farm in hope of finding seasonal work that would allow them to bring money home after harvest. Instead, they were lured by a bus driver who promised them jobs and sold as forced labor in a cacao farm in the Ivory Coast. As the book opens, they have survived two years there, grossly overworked, half-starved, and unable to escape. Suddenly, their miserable lives are changed by the appearance of Khadija, a girl who is brought to the farm tied up, and who fights every effort of the owners to subdue her.
Amid the cacao trees the next day, Khadija tricks Seydou into letting her escape. Realizing the beating Seydou has earned will probably kill him, Amadou takes the blame – then, barely able to stand, he is locked in a tool hut while the “bosses” find Khadija and chain her beside him. In the morning, as Amadou is still in no condition to work, he and Khadija are left in the shed, where they free the cacao beans from their pods, and, in spite of their mutual hostility, talk enough to discover that Khadija is a city girl who goes to school and wants to be a doctor. Amadou, an illiterate farm boy, is shocked and resentful. But Khadija does her share of the work – until evening, when she persuades the boss to free her from the chain, kicks him in the face, and escapes again. This time, when the bosses drag her back to the shed, Amadou realizes with horror that “they’re not stopping at beating her.” Though he is distressed by her shocked silence, he can do nothing for her – nor can he do anything when Seydou is gravely injured in the fields the next day. Except escape, which against all the odds, the three of them do.
The book’s sympathetically-drawn characters and the fast-paced escape scenes in which the three kids find their way back to Khadija’s journalist mother, whose forthcoming article on the forced child labor in cacao farms has led to Khadija’s kidnapping, more than survives its obvious moral message. Sullivan has done a great deal of research into the horrors behind commercially-produced chocolate and the political power of the large companies that make it. At the end of the book, she refers readers to her website, which looks into the matter further. That’s not necessary; the three terrified, dirty, hungry kids have made her point so well that alert readers will never again be able enjoy a chocolate bar without recalling the conditions that produced it.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.