Jul 11, 2013

The Sleeping Baobab Tree by Paula Leyden - A Review

Photo Credit: Paula Leyden
The Sleeping Baobab Tree
Walker Books, 256 pages
 ISBN-13: 978-1406327939, Available on Amazon and Walker Books

The Sleeping Baobab Tree is the second book by Paula Leyden which follows the adventures of siblings Bul-Boo and Madillo, and their friends. As in the first book, A Butterfly Heart, the story is set in Zambia and is told from the children’s points of view. This is not a sequel but rather stand-alone book, as explained by the author.

Bul-Boo and Madillo are twin sisters, and classmates and friends with their neighbour Fred. As the story opens the children are introduced to Ng’ombe Ilede “The Place of the Sleeping Cow: the place of death.” Sister Leonisa, the religion teacher, has a morbid fascination with grim stories, the story of Ng’ombe Ilede notwithstanding. She has a flair for exaggeration and does not brook any arguments from increasingly skeptical students.

Bul-Boo is one of the skeptical students who often challenges the facts in Sister Leonisa’s wild stories, and the interactions between the two are comical.  Madillo on the other hand believes in magic and spells, and is intrigued by the stories. Fred has a gift which he describes as a curse. He has premonitions and as a result has a foreboding nature and takes things too seriously for someone so young an age.

At home as the children are processing Sister Leonisa’s latest story, Fred is informed by his great-grandmother Nokokulu that she’s travelling to Ng’ombe Ilede, and he’s going with her. Nokokulu is a witch, and this journey is one she’s undertaking to do battle with someone she calls Man-Beast. Fred, unable to dissuade Nokokulu and knowing his parents will be just as unsuccessful, resigns himself to his fate; the unaccountable sense of foreboding he woke up with that morning ticks up a few notches.

Next door Bul-Boo overhears her parents discussing the mysterious disappearance of patients from their mother’s HIV clinic; one of whom is Fred’s beloved aunt Kiki. She shares this news with Madillo, who lets her imagine run wild and speculates the patients have been taken by a wizard much to Bul-Boo’s chagrin.

What follows is Bul-Boo and Madillo trying to unravel the mystery of the missing patients, and a wild trip to Ng’ombe Ilede with Nokokulu. Will Fred’s sense of foreboding come true on this trip and was Sister Leonisa’s right about the mystical things that happen in the place of death?

It was thoroughly enjoyable to join the twins and Fred on this adventure in The Sleeping Baobab Tree. Leyden does a remarkable job telling the story from the children’s points of view. Each of the three children moves the story along from his or her perspective, and the reader is privy to their individual thoughts and anxieties. An unexpected joy was the character of Nokokulu. Though a self-confessed and powerful witch she is not at all a caricature whose presence in the book is to terrify children and fit the mould of “evil, old woman.” Instead, she’s the matriarch of Fred’s family, and takes her role as a defender and keeper of tradition quite seriously. She knows Fred has a gift and is grooming him as her heir, despite his misgivings and desire to be a regular child.

Leyden is particularly skilled at descriptive text. The people and places she writes about allow the reader to feel part of the story and believe they are there with the characters. The dualities of contemporary and traditional customs are also well done. It is not at all preachy about the old ways being archaic, instead the reader is presented with the reality that exists in many African countries – the two co-exist, informing our past and present.

Once again Leyden has proven her skill at taking concepts that would otherwise be dark and burdensome for children (her target audience), and made it a lively adventure, all the while inserting lessons about history, friendship and loyalty. This is a recommended read for all ages. If you have a chance to read the preceding book, A Butterfly Heart, do so. You will not be disappointed.

*Ng’ombe Ilede is one of the most important archeological sites in Zambia. It was discovered in 1960 during civil engineering works. It is an Iron Age prehistoric site on the highest point of a ridge of the same name, on the left bank of the Lusitu River, a tributary of the Zambezi River in southern Zambia. The site was first settled between the late seventh and the late tenth centuries, then abandoned and reset­tled in the early fifteenth century. Most of the graves and their goods date to the fifteenth century. More information here