KIRKUS REVIEW

WHEN THE GROUND IS HARD by Malla Nunn

Review Issue Date: April 15, 2019
Online Publish Date: March 24, 2019
Publisher:Putnam
Pages: 272
Price ( Hardcover ): $17.99
Publication Date: June 4, 2019
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-525-51557-9
Category: Fiction

A 16-year-old girl finds friendship and questions social hierarchies at her boarding school. After Adele Joubert is demoted from her favored place among the popular girls and sent to live in a room where a former student died, she begins to question the carefully structured hierarchy of her community. Within Keziah Christian Academy, a school for mixed-race students in 1965 Swaziland, a class system separates the rich from the poor, dictating who eats first at meals and who gets access to the best textbooks. Hair texturism, colorism, and the legitimacy of their parents’ relationships also create divisions that Adele, who is of black and white ancestry, challenges with her budding friendship with her new roommate, Lottie Diamond, a poor outcast of Jewish, Scottish, and Zulu heritage. When classmate Darnell Parns, who is coded as neurodivergent, goes missing, Adele pushes boundaries aside to search for him and, in the process, learns more about her own complicated origins in the sweeping hills where Keziah is situated. With a critical emphasis on power dynamics among the multiracial students, the story moves quickly, focusing on Adele’s interpersonal development. The gorgeous imagery sets the scene wonderfully, and there is mention of the religious and geographical colonization represented in the book, the hazy morals of the adults, and the relationships between black, white, and mixed-race citizens of Swaziland, but the narrative doesn’t dig too deeply into these subjects. An engrossing narrative that gently but directly explores complex relationships.

(Historical fiction. 14-adult)

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW

WHEN THE GROUND IS HARD by Malla Nunn

272p. Putnam. Jun. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525515579.

Gr 7 Up

Being friends with wealthy Delia places Adele at the top of the pecking order at Keziah Christian Academy, a boarding school for mixed-race students in Swaziland during the time of the British Protectorate. Wealth and respectability rule, while gossip, food, and lackeys are commodities. Adele fits squarely in the class with wealth and no respectability. She returns junior year, mortified to find that she is placed in “dead Lorraine’s room” with Lottie rather than Delia. “Lottie breaks the rules, she fights, she steals, she has one school uniform…. She’s poor. Being with her will bring me down to her level.” Yet stereotypes start shattering fast: Lottie steals food from Adele but uses most to trade for Mama Khumalo’s traditional medicine to treat Adele’s injured shoulder. She and Lottie are declared heroes and suspected as witches, becoming true friends as they take risks for each other and others, while devouring Jane Eyre. Much later, Adele finds out that Mama Khumalo is her aunt and begins to acknowledge and respect her Zulu side, which her mother has kept hidden. The accidents, lies, thefts, fights, secrets, sneaking, accusations, firefighting, dead bodies, and illicit rendezvous make for riveting reading in this taut novel chronicling Lottie’s strength of character and Adele’s transformation. Adele unravels class and racial discrimination, turns envy into self-compassion, and reconceives friendship in terms of sharing rather than one-upmanship, with ripple effects all around her.

VERDICT: Recommended for fans of Laura Amy Schlitz and Nnedi Okorafor, who will relish the storytelling, adventure, and spiritual depth.

–Sara Lissa Paulson, City-As-School High School, New York City

BOOKLIST

WHEN THE GROUND IS HARD by Malla Nunn

Advanced Review – Uncorrected Proof
Issue: May 15, 2019
June 2019. 257p. Putnam, $17.99 (9780525515579). Gr. 8–11.

In Swaziland, wealth and privilege are tightly bound to race. As a mixed-race girl, Adele considers herself above the native Zulus, but her relatively privileged status is compromised by the fact that her white father lives with his “real” family in Johannesburg. Nevertheless, Adele has managed to find a place with the popular girls at her boarding school, until the arrival of a new girl slams her down the social hierarchy.
Now Adele is stuck sharing an undesirable room with a decidedly unpopular girl, Lottie, best known for her fighting skills. The girls do share a love of reading, however, and bond over Jane Eyre. After weathering large and small traumas, they form a true friendship. Despite the predictable arc of the story, excellent writing and an evocative setting make this novel a standout. The racism that Adele and Lottie experience, where a small white minority holds disproportionate power, as is common in formerly colonized places, will feel both familiar and revelatory for many readers. And the transformative power of literature, demonstrated by two girls in Africa thrilling to the adventures of an impoverished girl in nineteenth-century England, also works its magic on readers of Adele’s story.

— Diane Colson