OCTOBER 30, 2018
IT IS UNCANNY when a book arrives at a particularly riveting moment, one in which the book’s reflection of current events is dizzying. How would an unsuspecting reader know that Bernice L. McFadden’s latest novel — a tale of modern-day slavery in another hemisphere, depicting the practice of trokosi — would resonate so deeply on our own shores?
I read this tale of separation, betrayal, and internecine secrets during a time when children were torn from the bosoms of their families at the US-Mexican border, emphasizing both actions for what they are: barbaric. McFadden’s novel is the story of a nine-year-old child who was dropped off at a temple prison and kept in a cage of tradition and inhumanity — meanwhile, here in the United States, children from South and Central America were sleeping on the floor in enclosures made of mesh wire. As of mid-September 2018, some 12,800 immigrant children were still being held in detention. It is a stunning, gut-punching moment to realize that trokosi, a cultural and governmental injustice and crime in West Africa, is mirrored right here in the United States. It is an action so loathsome, so unimaginable that the story tears at the reader’s heart as if clawed by wild animals. This is obviously the author’s intention. Readers familiar with McFadden’s body of work — 15 books altogether under her given and pen names — will not be surprised by the power of the tale.
Look at little Abeo, kindergarten age, twirling and starring in her family’s comfortable production of a life. Now, see that same innocent child, a girl child covering herself in some loose rough garment, with nothing to eat but a thick tasteless porridge, as she serves as the sexual slave of men who call themselves priests. (Yes, there are quite a few parallels to Christian and Catholic churches.) Get to know Abeo, merely a girl bearing rape and childbirth as soon as she bleeds. Her story leaves you feeling cracked open.
Trokosi, as defined by the author, “comes from the Ewe words tro, meaning deity or fetish, and kosi, meaning female slave.” It is this horrific practice that McFadden’s work illuminates. It is the belief in and practice of abandoning girls to serve life sentences as slaves to temple priests in order to protect their families from the gods’ anger — the sacrifice of an innocent for the sake of family honor, as punishment, and all beliefs that aim to make slavery palpable. In McFadden’s capable hands, these reasons ring as hollow as they are.
From the opening, McFadden reveals how sudden elements of violence, hatred, and death can insert themselves during a routine walk to work. In the familiar rhythm of an ancient folk tale, set mainly in the imaginary West African nation of Ukemby, the author asks what happens when the “village” not only fails a child but also sacrifices her.
The novel shifts back and forth in time covering more than three decades, from 1978 to 2009, covering numerous unforgettable characters on two continents. At its core is Abeo’s story. Abeo is the first and treasured daughter in the prosperous, safe household of Wasik Kata, an accountant with a cushy job with the Ukemby government treasury, and his wife, Ismae Kata, a beautiful, graceful former model. Cherished, inquisitive, a bit spoiled, and part of what Ismae assures her husband makes “the life I’ve always dreamed of having,” Abeo is the cynosure of the privileged home — teased, coddled, encouraged to dream, and danced about in fancy dresses. All of this begins to fall apart, however, as Wasik’s fortunes wane. Soon, the family’s spiritual and corporal life follows suit. A political turn leads to suspicion and the loss of employment for Wasik. Folks recall his grandfather’s accident that killed two female goat kids, a parent’s death, unacknowledged family secrets, a child’s sickness, bruised male ego, and lost potency. All common vagaries of life merge, spelling more than just bad luck for the cozy Kata domicile. A curse befalls their house.
It is this perceived pox on their peaceful household and good name that leads to sudden, unthinkable action. Wasik, who has earlier teased his daughter Abeo for being a “sleepyhead,” snatches her from bed one night and takes her on a horrifying, frenzied, heartbreaking ride through the dark countryside and urban streets in search of an emergency shrine. Just like that, without explanation, goodbyes, or even a backward glance from her father, seven-year-old Abeo is abandoned at night in a makeshift village of strangers. Still mesmerized by women’s jewelry and video tapes of The Wizard of Oz, this fragile spunky girl has just been ripped from the only people she knows and dropped like a slaughtered lamb into an encampment without rudimentary electricity and running water. Thus begins her first night of slavery, pummeled with unfamiliar harsh words, commands, and abuse from older women who drip contempt and hatred like venom on her smooth brown skin.
The next morning, Abeo awakes to find herself still in the nightmarish world of trokosi. Her doting father truly did offer her up to the “devil” and toss her into hell wearing only a nightshirt and sandals. The action and its repercussions are as unimaginable for the reader as for little Abeo. For this child — terrified, traumatized, and confused — it only gets worse.
The novel has a timeless quality; McFadden is a master of taking you to another time and place. In doing so, she raises questions surrounding the nature of memory, what we allow to thrive, and what we determine to execute. Praise Song for the Butterflies is a cautionary tale with a cruel twist. There are Wasik and those who collude with him to keep Abeo in captivity, and there are also the innocent victims. But what of little Abeo? What is she to take away from her fate? Trust no one? Believe that there is no fate worse than being born a woman?
The novel also brings to mind the 276 female students kidnapped more than four years ago by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria; girls and young women snatched from the seeming safety of school, some of whom are still in captivity, some palmed out to men like chattel to be wives and servants, some who have most likely perished.
McFadden brings the sweeping drama of her earlier works — The Book of Harlan, Glorious, Gathering of Waters — into this small book, and reminds me of the gentle fierceness of Edwidge Danticat’s writing. Despite the novel’s spare style and story line, there is fleeting joy and relief — kernels of respite as simple as a stolen mango furtively shared by Abeo and the girls, some of whom pray each night for death:
They all stared at the mango as if it were a brick of gold.
“You stole it?”
Juba grinned. “It fell off the truck and rolled to the side of the road. I didn’t steal it, I rescued it!”
There is clearly more to be “rescued” than a precious ripe mango. Questions of physical and mental abandonment loom large in this compact novel, along with issues of ancient and current ritual servitude, responsibility for choices, and forgiveness. McFadden asks why some of us are so easily forgotten and some are impossible to forget.
For me, the sparseness of Praise Song is one of its strengths; for some, it may be a weakness. As with tales this succinctly written, there is always the danger that it is too spare, leaving the reader wanting more detail. This is what happens when, in a quiet moment, each of Abeo’s sisters in slavery shares the story of how she ended up imprisoned in a dusty village with a lifetime sentence of sexual and physical work. The stories are so brief that the entire scene feels like a roundup of the local news — heartbreaking, enthralling news — but a truncated version of the truth. Additionally, in the process, the author sometimes slips into the habit of dumbing down the language, stealing the power of a scene already told in perfect tone. This happens when 11-year-old Abeo is summoned to her first rape by the assistant to the old temple priest: “Two weeks after Abeo completed her third menstrual cycle, Darkwa darkened the doorway of their hut and pointed at Abeo. ‘You, come with me.’”
Yet there is also redemption for some of the tortured and imprisoned. McFadden is too accomplished a storyteller to leave the reader with anything less; yet it is redemption hard-won and fragile as a butterfly’s wings.
Tina McElroy Ansa is the author of the novels Baby of the Family, Ugly Ways, The Hand I Fan With, You Know Better, and Taking After Mudear. She is completing Secrets of a Bogart Queen, a work of nonfiction.