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Breaking Enormous Tragedies Into Manageable Pieces

Published 02/12/2010 12:00 AM
Some of the most effective writing comes from telling a monumental story through the eyes of a seemingly minor character, and "There Is No Me Without You" is a good example.

Published in 2006, the nonfiction book by Melissa Fay Greene centers on an Ethiopian woman, Haregewoin Teferra. Overcome by grief at the loss of her husband and daughter within a few years of each other, Teferra is about to go into seclusion when a local priest asks her to take in two orphans.

Two becomes four and then eight, and then dozens. Soon, Teferra's home becomes a full-fledged orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a haven not only for children who have been orphaned by AIDS, but for those who have the disease themselves.

Greene's book takes the enormity of the African AIDS epidemic and breaks it down into manageable pieces that neither minimizes the tragedy nor overwhelms the reader.

Greene employs a strong narrative to draw the reader into Teferra's compound and into the lives of the children who have been dropped off there, and then she cuts abruptly into segments of background that educate the reader on topics like the origins of AIDS, how it might have spread, pharmaceutical companies' roles, and a brief history of Ethiopia.

Her timing and pace are well executed. At the moments I found my attention span wandering from pages that began to read like a thesis, or I began to succumb to the feeling that this epidemic was too large and hopeless - 1.6 million AIDS orphans in Ethiopia alone in 2005, with no access to medicine, and 4.4 million orphans overall - Greene would veer back into narrative.

Greene also sprinkles in details that are like a soft, velvet glove slap to the cheek of readers like us, from wealthy countries; she straddles the line herself, as someone who has spent months immersed in squalor for her research but who also lives a comfortable life in Atlanta.

Many reviewers have pointed out, and I agree, that one of the book's strengths is in Greene's refusal to paint Haregewoin as an unblemished hero or saint. Haregewoin is no martyr.

She at times falls into the trappings of pride and enjoys the publicity generated by a magazine article that Greene wrote. She sometimes plays favorites, harbors resentment, ignores accusations of wrongdoing in the orphanage for fear of the resultant bad PR, and is herself accused of malfeasance, albeit on what appears to be shaky evidence and political gamesmanship.

Yet Haregewoin is also introspective and spiritual, and Greene shows us a woman who, more often than not, recognizes when she has slipped up - even if it takes awhile.

The book ends with a handful of chapters devoted to follow-up stories that trace the new lives of some of the orphans after they have been adopted into American families. Other children we meet in the book have died of AIDS because they didn't have access to medicine.

The book went on to win a litany of awards and was named best nonfiction book of the year by the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, Publishers Weekly, and others.

And on a last note: as I write this, the news about the earthquake in Haiti is still fresh. As I finished reading Greene's book, I couldn't help but to see her children in the images of devastated Haitian orphanages shown on TV, and it seemed to me that I saw glimpses of the troubles in Ethiopia and Africa playing out in Haiti: the poverty, lack of resources, a history of questionable, if any, assistance from wealthier countries. Those parallels lend an added depth to Greene's book.

On the web:
www.thereisnomewithoutyou.com

Isaac's Storm
Erik Larson
Random House, 1999

A Tale That's Still Timely

Why mention a book that's 10 years old? Because it's well written, captivating, and timely.

Erik Larson's book, "Isaac's Storm," tells the story of the 1900 hurricane that devastated the town of Galveston, Texas, through the experience of the resident meteorologist, Isaac Cline.

The book is a fascinating look at a time when we thought our technology was cutting edge, humans were feeling somewhat invincible, and we felt that weather predictions and superior intellect would keep us one step ahead of Mother Nature.

Sound familiar?

Larson did an immense amount of research, using newspaper articles, reports, witness testimony, and Cline's own notes to piece together the events that led to the catastrophe.

People still debate whether Cline is to blame for not alerting Galveston's residents in time to the approaching storm, which killed more than 6,000 people; some argue that Cline did all he could, while others say he missed key signs.

"This is the story of Isaac and his time in America, the last turning of the centuries, when the hubris of men led them to believe they could disregard even nature itself," Larson writes.

Part of what makes the narrative so effective is the tension that builds from the first page on, as the storm inches ever closer to Galveston and we watch as its residents go about their day, oblivious, and the experts fumble with their information.

For those of us in southeastern Connecticut, the storyline is eerily similar to the Hurricane of '38, which crashed onto the shoreline and knocked an unknowing community onto its knees.

"The hard lesson that nature cannot be predicted, especially at the extremes of its behavior, was delivered to Isaac Cline, to the city of Galveston, and to the entire nation on September 8, 1900," reads a description of the book on its Web site. "On the evening of that day, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history roared out of the Gulf of Mexico and confronted Galveston with its own powerlessness in the face of nature's fury."