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Brave Music of a Distant Drum by M. Herbstein



Herbstein, Manu.  Brave Music of a Distant Drum. Markham, ON: Red Deer Press, 2011.  Print.

This is a powerful and thought-provoking novel, which offers remarkable insights into one of the darkest chapters in human history.  South African author Manu Herbstein was awarded the 2002 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and in Brave Music of a Distant Drum, Herbstein re-imagines Ama’s story for a younger, North American audience.

The novel chronicles the meeting between an elderly woman at the end of her life and the son who does not remember or understand her.  It soon becomes clear that the divide which separates mother and son cannot be overcome until he listens to her story.  Kidnapped as a teenager by Bedagbam slave raiders, young Ama was traded several times by powerful slave owners in Africa before she found herself on a slave ship bound for South America.  Now elderly and blind, Ama needs her son to write her history down so that it will not be drowned “in the swamp of lost memories.” It is a heart-breaking story, but one that is filled with courageous acts of resistance and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of hope.  Following in the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) and Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negros (2007), it is apparent that Ama’s son needs to understand his parents’ history before he can make sense of his own life in the present.

This novel is recommended for young adults (16+), and this is an important guideline for two reasons.  First, readers who lack sufficient literary and historical knowledge will have trouble interpreting the clues that reveal that the novel is set in eighteenth-century Brazil.  More importantly, although the novel’s realistic depictions of horrific violence serve an important purpose, this violence is challenging for even a mature reader.

Recommended: Four stars out of four
Reviewer: Linda Quirk

Linda is Assistant Special Collections Librarian at the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta.