Publisher: Random House Children's Books
After the sudden death of her mother, Clare Silver remains in denial until her father, a doctor, whisks her away to a remote African village—the one place he believes can heal both of their hearts.
A budding fashion designer, Clare feels stuck in the jungle, living under primitive conditions without cell phone reception or any contact with the outside world and expected to attend school with the locals and learn their language.
When a teacher quits, Clare reluctantly agrees to teach the youngest students. Clare can't help being impressed with the kids who are so eager to learn, despite having to work in small, crowded spaces and share their schoolbooks. As Clare develops a friendship with an orphan named Memory, this girl who has lost so much dares Clare to open her heart again, remember her mother, and laugh with the moon.
Shana Burg's Laugh with the Moon is such a complex yet simple book that packs a hefty emotional punch. (I cried while reading the last fourth of the book; and, a month later, I still get emotional just thinking about writing this review.) Before I write what may sound like criticisms (but are not!) I want to put what I will say into context. Have you ever had someone tell you a story about a "friend?" A story about something so bad or sad or hard that the insulation of the "friend" was required, even though you both knew the story was really about them? Laugh with the Moon is a little like that story. You see, it isn't really fiction at all. Burg tackles some very harsh realities about Malawi. She spent years learning about these realities, and then even more crafting a story in which she could communicate them. Burg has some very specific issues that she wants to discuss, and it leaves her characters feeling less like actual people and more like symbolic representations of groups of people. She manipulates them to tell her story, but they never feel like puppets; she uses them to speak with her voice, but they never become her megaphone. They have nuance even while feeling a little flat. The insulation was needed to tell this story in a middle grade novel. (I am a 28 year old woman and I needed it!)
Laugh with the Moon deals with death, dying, illness, and grief, but it is always full of life. Burg not only shows how different cultures celebrate life and death, but also how people within those cultures deal with it differently. It is a frank look at loss, but it remains ever hopeful. (I didn't read the Author's Note until I finished, which just elevated my already very high opinion of her. Three different people who were her friends and helped make this book possible died before it was published; also before they were 40 years old. Shana Burg is an amazingly hopeful and optimistic woman.)
Burg also very subtly but effectively takes on the idea of privilege. Laugh with the Moon begins with Clare donning her mantle of privilege as carelessly and obliviously as one slips into flip-flops on the beach: Throwing an anti-Malaria pill away because it has fell to the floor, regularly chugging bottled water in front of people who have only had it once or twice in their lives, or causally using - then giving away - pens in front of students who have never had formal school supplies. As the story progresses, though, she becomes more aware of her privilege, and how unjust that privilege really is. Each one of her friends is instrumental in different ways to her achievement of this awareness. I particularly like how Burg uses Memory and Agnes as foils - the extremes of how Malawians might react to an American such as Clare. Memory loves and accepts Clare as she is, overlooking Clare's thoughtless acts because she knows they are unintentional. Agnes, however, calls her out at every turn - forces her to face it. It would be easy - and is often done - to make Agnes the 'mean' or 'bad' character, but she isn't. Agnes, too, becomes a friend, once Clare sees why Agnes treats her the way she does. Innocent shows her the value of the pills she so casually took; a child who dies for lack of a medicine that costs .28 USD per pediatric dose* or a mosquito net that costs $3.00 USD.** Saidi shows her the value of the education she took for granted; he cannot move into high school for lack of the <$1.00 USD*** a year it would cost, and leaves primary school early because he cannot afford a suitable uniform.
These two issues, then, are the soul of why Shana Burg wrote Laugh with the Moon: access to adequate medical attention and access to an adequate education. It is hard to pull these issues out of the book because they are so deeply woven into the fabric of every single scene. The reality of what Malawians face is right there under the surface of the story; the fabric on which it is constructed. And, much like her characters Memory and Agnes, Burg by turns coaxes the reader and forces the reader to confront our privilege. The stark contrast between the private schools that children of white missionaries and doctors attend from that of the local village children is heartbreaking. The unutterable decadence of the fully equipped hospital Clare receives treatment in compared to the hot cave of a room that Innocent dies in is tragic. It is impossible to read Laugh with the Moon and remain unmoved. But it is a movement into action; a feeling of hope rather than despair. We can, and should, do something to change this.
*** From Laugh with the Moon
Some Facts About Malaria
- Malaria is preventable and treatable
- 91% of malaria deaths occur in Africa
- Every minute, a child dies of malaria
- 85 percent of those who die from malaria are children under 5 years of age
- Malaria accounts for approximately 22% of all childhood deaths in Africa
- In 2010, malaria caused an estimated 655 000 deaths
What You Can Do to Help
- World Altering Medicine was cofounded by Dr. Kevin Bergman, a friend of Shana Burg.
- Malaria No More is determined to end malaria deaths in Africa by 2015. Malaria is a preventable and treatable disease and recent progress shows that malaria's days are numbered — but we need your help. Together, we can make malaria no more.
- World Malaria Day - A Year round resource to count malaria out.
- International Medical Corps is a global, humanitarian, nonprofit organization dedicated to saving lives and relieving suffering through health care training and relief and development programs.
This review also appears on Goodreads; a review copy was provided by the publisher.