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