Excerpted from Thirty Girls by Susan Minot. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Minot. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Susan Minot is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, poet, and screenwriter. Her first novel, Monkeys, was published in a dozen countries and won the Prix Femina Étranger in France. Her novel Evening was a worldwide best seller and became a major motion picture. She teaches at New York University and lives with her daughter in New York City and on North Haven island Maine.
“Wrenching. . . . Suspenseful. . . . By far her best novel.” —The New York Times
“Extraordinary. . . . Panoramic. . . . Poetic. . . . Minot shows her readers that war zones cannot be contained within one country, or one region. When cruelty and violence reign, we are all at risk.” —NPR
“A book about the relativity of pain; the grace of forgiveness; and the essential unknowability of a lover.” —The Daily Beast
“A novel of quiet humanity and probing intelligence. . . . Susan Minot takes huge questions and examines them with both a delicate touch and a cleareyed, unyielding scrutiny.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Clear and searing. . . . Pulls you in from the first page. . . . A book that looks hard at trauma, love, and humanity.” —The Boston Globe
“Africa—described in Minot’s muscular, evocative, and unflinching prose—offers itself up to Jane in all its beguiling beauty, its unremitting violence, and breaks her open like an egg.” —MORE Magazine
“Visually intense. . . . Minot’s writing is so potent and the story told so tragic, the novel sears the mind.” —New York Daily News
“Daring. . . . Minot’s cleanly sculpted prose and capacity to penetrate and open the mind and heart challenge us to step outside our comfort zone. Finally, there comes this realization: Esther and Jane aren’t so different at all. We recognize their stories as ours. . . . Minot succeeds, through her fictionalized version, in making us care as much as she does.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A haunting portrayal of two women.” —Vanity Fair
“When there is a story the world needs to know, does it matter who tells it, or just that it gets told?. . . Minot tells both stories with such harsh, lyrical beauty that neither is easy to forget. Grade: A-.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Hotly anticipated. . . . Wins the reader’s heart.” —Vogue
“Exquisitely poignant and painfully credible. . . . [A] heart-rending story, with [an] honest and bleak view of the power of love to heal so much human breakage.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Exceptional. . . . A fragile but unmistakable note of hope.” —Elle
“Gripping. . . . Sensual. . . . Immediate. . . . Minot wants to do more than sound a drumbeat of atrocities. . . . She wants to use literature to transmute a human horror into something that can be understood and in time healed.” —The Miami Herald
“Excellent, evocative. . . . Thirty Girls sketches the landscape with impressionist strokes and then burrows in to view the cruelties people can visit on one other and themselves.” —The Seattle Times
“Thirty Girls conveys an important story that people need to hear. . . . Esther is a stunning character whose strength and bravery is an inspiration to readers.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“A novel as raw, beautiful, and seemingly serendipitous as the politics, landscape, and culture of the sub-Saharan Africa it describes.” —Shelf Awareness
1. What do you notice about the alternating narrators in the chapters at the beginning? Does the novel follow this structure throughout? Is the experience of this novel dependent on the contrast between the two stories and points of view?
2. At the beginning, Jane is “ready for anything different from what she’d known” (p. 29). We learn that she felt “bound…fiercely” to her husband although he rejected her (p. 39). Is it clear what has caused her sense of alienation from her life, or not so clear?
3. Minot sets up the historical background of her novel in a chapter narrated by Esther Akello. These events might not have been on the radar, at the time, of American readers of this novel. In what ways does the novel raise awareness of the distance between Americans and people who live in more dangerous parts of the world?
4. Sister Giulia and Bosco take on the courageous task of trying to rescue the girls, and Sister Giulia is forced to decide which thirty girls must remain with the rebels. How does she make this decision? What would you do if faced with a situation like this?
5. What is it about Harry that is attractive to Jane? What does the sex between Harry and Jane tell us about them? If her interest in him is sexual at first, how does it deepen into love? What elements of Minot’s writing style make their love scenes powerful?
6. Jane often feels moody and detached. She wishes that “she could observe the world with amusement and be inviting and light” (p. 126); at other times, she feels “united and whole” (p. 127). How do you relate to Jane’s shifting psychological and emotional states?
7. Esther tries to keep herself detached from what she experiences and witnesses: “For myself I tried to keep a calm place inside me. This place I thought of as my soul. I pictured it in the shape of a white marble bowl. … I used to think God sat in that shallow bowl” (p. 151). How well does this strategy work for her?
8. On the long journey into northern Uganda, Jane and her friends learn about violent chapters of the country’s history while also seeing wondrous sights like the source of the Nile, which makes Jane “aware of the romance in the word [Nile].… Then she thought of how in history at that moment, three hundred miles north of this peaceful gliding river, children were being yanked out of their homes, held captive, raped, infected with deadly disease, and made to kill” (p. 117). At another point, “they all stood…where Idi Amin had had people thrown in to be eaten by crocodiles” (p. 167). How do these descriptions illuminate Jane’s difficulty in comprehending these sights and this knowledge?
9. About being forced to participate in the murder of the girl from Gulu, Esther says that she told herself, “This is the worst thing that would ever happen” (p. 155). She later says, “I still do not so much care if I am good anymore or not. In these times it feels good to hate” (p. 159). If this novel is partly about the possibility of healing, how does Esther cope with the sense that she has lost her innocence and her humanity? How does she deal with having survived when her friend Agnes did not?
10. What is Jane seeking in life and on this journey? What is she trying to escape? What changes in her when she visits the camp and interviews Esther and the other?
11. Several small sections of the book are entitled “The You File” (pp. 99, 249, 293, 366). What is their relationship to the stories of Esther and Jane? Who is speaking in these pages?
12. Jane’s desire to come to Uganda began when she met Grace Dollo in New York, and walked home thinking, “I will do something” (p. 172-73). How unusual is it for someone to act on such a desire? When she visits the school from which the girls were taken, Jane thinks, “To learn of another’s suffering is to confront one’s own shame” (p. 203). How does this idea resonate throughout the novel?
13. Does anything prepare you for the shooting of Harry? How do you connect this element of the story with what Jane has already experienced in Africa? How does it affect the novel’s sense of closure?
14. What is striking about Minot’s writing style? Discuss a few passages that you found particularly memorable or evocative.