Journalism and literature collide in Susan Minot’s “Thirty Girls”

In 2012, a campaign entitled “KONY2012” went viral, taking this nation by storm and motivating people into action against the Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony. Kony, who is known for kidnapping children and forcing them to serve as soldiers in his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is responsible for thousands of deaths and atrocities throughout Uganda and central Africa over the past several decades, and it is with this in mind that Susan Minot chose the central theme of her latest novel “Thirty Girls”.

Minot, who herself travelled to Africa to report on the horrors of Joseph Kony and the LRA, put her journalistic knowledge to use in this novel. Basing the plot on a 1996 incident in which 139 girls were kidnapped from their boarding school in northern Uganda by the LRA, Minot recounts how the headmistress followed the kidnappers into the woods and succeeded in bargaining for the release of 109 of the girls, with the stipulation that she leave the 30 healthiest girls behind. After a graphic telling of this encounter, the narrative picks up with the story of one of the girls form the school– fifteen-year-old Esther Akello–and her experiences serving as a child soldier for the LRA.


While this is a dramatic departure from Minot’s usual romantic fictions, she does not abandon her typical theme entirely. Running parallel to Esther’s, in alternating chapters, is a storyline involving a thirty-something American journalist by the name of Jane Wood, and her experiences as she travels to Africa to report on the incident with the 30 girls. Jane, who is attempting to escape from the memory of her deceased, drug-addicted, ex-husband, soon finds herself traveling through Africa with an eclectic group of adventurous young adults.

In the midst of concerns regarding her inevitable loss of youth, Jane eventually becomes romantically entwined with a much younger man, named Harry, whose free spirit and adventurous nature serve to counter her usually reserved and withdrawn personality.

While Jane’s storyline is interesting, and the search for love/purpose is more relatable to the reader than the other aspects of the book, she inevitably ends up coming off as slightly superficial when placed as a contrast to the tragedies that Esther experiences throughout the novel.

When it comes down to it, the strength of this novel lies with Esther, and the strength that she shows in the midst of such horrific circumstances. Minot should be commended for her ability to voice Esther with such emotional depth and accuracy.  She makes it clear that Esther is simultaneously a strong and brave young women being forced to commit acts that no one should ever have to experience, and also a girl who wants nothing more than to have someone comfort her. Even in the rehabilitation camp from which she tells her story after her escape from the LRA, Esther’s residual anger, and the moral conflict she experiences regarding her actions in the LRA, is told with unabashed honesty.

“Thirty Girls” is an interesting mix of genres, and Minot finds a way to blend them, while making sure to treat both subject matters with the respect that they deserve.  This book is very difficult to read at times, as Minot does not shy away from describing the horrors of war, but for any reader who is willing to experience that, this is a beautifully written story that should not be missed.