The People of Ostrich Mountain
As the 1950s Mau Mau war breaks out in the foothills of Mt. Kenya, Wambũi, a fourteen-year-old girl leaves her besieged village to join a prestigious boarding school a half day’s journey away by train. There, she becomes aware of her extraordinary mathematical abilities discovered by her teacher, Eileen Atwood. Initially, Wambũi views Eileen’s attentions with suspicion and hostility, but over time, the two grow close and form a lifelong friendship.
Unfortunately for Wambũi, the mid-twentieth century isn’t ready for a female math prodigy, particularly in Kenya. But she quietly and defiantly takes on the obstacles seeking to define her, applying her unusual gifts in new directions, which ultimately benefits her impoverished family and inspires her siblings and their children to pursue their own dreams.
After forty years in Kenya, Eileen unexpectedly loses her employment authorization and is forced to return to England, where she struggles to adjust to living in a country she barely recognizes. Meanwhile, Wambũi’s son, Ray, a doctor, navigates a fraught visa application process and travels to America to begin residency training; however, his hospital becomes insolvent and shuts down a year later. He and his colleagues are assimilated into other programs where, as foreign-born physicians, they endure relentless prejudice. As a black man, he also discovers that the streets of Chicago are sometimes quick to judge, with serious consequences.
A saga of family and friendship spanning five decades and three continents, The People of Ostrich Mountain chronicles the interconnected lives of three outsiders as they navigate the vagaries of race, gender and immigration.
Plot/Idea: 10 out of 10
Originality: 10 out of 10
Prose: 9 out of 10
Character/Execution: 10 out of 10
Overall: 9.75 out of 10
Plot: This excellent historical novel offers a vivid, multigenerational portrait of a Kenyan family. With literary prowess and great authenticity, the author explores both the triumphs and challenges faced by individuals who continue to carry the scars of colonialism.
Prose: Despite the author's occasional tendency to focus on minutia, Githaiga's prose is primarily polished, vivid, and engrossing. Readers will recognize that they are in the hands of a master storyteller.
Originality: Githaiga's novel is unique in its focus, breadth, and artful delivery. The historical Kenyan setting is as strikingly well-realized as the streets of modern Chicago.
Character/Execution: From self-possessed, courageous Wambũi to Eileen Atwood, whose idealism in no way compromises her integrity, the characters populating The People of Ostrich Mountain are multidimensional, various, and convincing. The impact of seismic historical and cultural events on central characters, is moving and palpable.
Date Submitted: July 10, 2020
Debut author and physician Githaiga concocts an exquisitely imagined, sweeping historical saga that traces the generations of one Kenyan family from 1952 to the 21st century. The story opens as the infamous Mau Mau “boys of the forest” are committing atrocities in an effort to break free of British rule. Against this backdrop, 14-year-old schoolgirl Wambũi leaves her rural village to attend the Alliance Girls School in a town a half-day’s train ride away. There her teacher, British missionary and expat Eileen Atwood, realizes Wambũi has a genius-level aptitude for mathematics. Sadly, Wambũi’s family needs a breadwinner more than a mathematician, and after graduation she returns to her village first to teach and then to run the local hardware store. She’s determined that her son, Raymond Kĩng’ori Mwangi, will have more opportunities. He becomes a physician and eventually emigrates to the U.S.
Lyrical, descriptive prose effortlessly draws the reader into the multigenerational drama, which illustrates Kenya’s transition from a British colony to a sovereign nation. The author writes with expert ease about a dark time in Kenyan history when common people were caught in brutal conflicts between the Mau Mau and the British colonial government. Githaiga doesn’t pull his punches when he describes these atrocities, nor when he shows the racist attitudes of the white American doctors at Raymond’s residency program.
Githaiga introduces readers to a bevy of memorable characters that are so skillfully drawn that they effortlessly leap off the page and into readers’ hearts. Chief among them is Wambũi, who exhibits grit, grace and great expectations in a time when many Kenyan teenagers were routinely denied education and married off. Another standout is the dedicated and idealistic Eileen Atwood, who ultimately spends 42 years teaching in Kenya. These characters, teamed with an expertly paced plot, combine to create a rich and evocative story that will make a lasting impression on readers.
Takeaway: Fans of post-colonial literature and multigenerational drama will love this exquisitely written portrait of Kenya as seen through the eyes of unforgettable characters.
Great for fans of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: B+
Githaiga’s tender if plodding debut explores nationhood and colonization via the story of a Kenyan woman and her supportive teacher. In 1952 Kenya, during a national state of emergency, 14-year-old Wambui’s father sells his favorite goat to pay for her train fare to the elite boarding school, Alliance Girls, where she’s gained admission. Wambui is gifted in math and her teacher, Eileen Atwood, an English missionary from Surrey, has high hopes for her. Instead, Wambui marries a shopkeeper in order to support her family. Githaiga then flashes forward to tell the story of Wambui’s son, Raymond, a doctor in Chicago, who is confronted with racism and prejudice; and Eileen, who, after more than 40 years at Alliance Girls, is fired and forced to return to England, where she does not feel at home. Githaiga’s heavy-handed approach can be distracting from the narrative, with superfluous footnotes and translations of well-known phrases (such as “hakuna matata”). And though the characterizations tend toward the simplistic (the saintly Eileen versus Raymond’s racist colleagues, for instance), the story feels genuinely heartfelt. Those who possess little familiarity with postcolonial East Africa will be the best audience for this sweeping tale. (Self-published)