Wednesday, March 12th, 2008...11:12 am

Secrets in the Fire by Henning Mankell

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When her small village in Mozambique is attacked by bandits and her father is killed, Sofia Alface, her sister, Maria, brother, Alfredo, and mother, Lydia, flee, walking for days in search of somewhere safe. They finally find and are welcomed into a second village, where Mother Lydia builds a hut and joins the village women in the fields, aided by Maria and Sofia. Though still grief-stricken following the death of her father and the destruction of their village, Sofia and her family begin to make a new home among their new neighbours.
Encouraged to attend the school offered free of charge by a local Catholic mission, Sofia and Maria begin to spend a few hours each afternoon in the primary class where, surrounded by over ninety children, most of whom are far younger than they are, the girls learn to read and do sums. Sofia makes friends with the local tailor, an elderly man named Totio, who agrees to help her make a dress for her sister just as soon as she can find appropriate fabric. Knowing she will never be able to afford to purchase material, Sofia succumbs to temptation and steals one white sheet from the clothesline of Father José-Maria, the mission priest. Under Totio’s careful instruction, Sofia learns to sew and makes a beautiful dress for Maria, one that delights her sister, but Sofia is consumed by guilt at the thought of her theft.
Father José-Maria, a Brazilian who has come to Mozambique to do God’s work, never notices the missing sheet. He is, instead, preoccupied by the hidden and deadly danger that faces the villagers, and particularly their children, each time they step from their huts. Land mines lie buried just below the surface of the ground all around the outskirts of the village, and Father José-Maria is careful to warn each and every villager that they must never step from the paths. Mother Lydia lectures Maria about the danger, and Maria lectures Sofia, who, in turn, lectures young Alfredo, but children are children, and one day, as they return from the fields, Sofia decides to run. Since it is the rainy season, and the ground is wet, Sofia slips off the path and slides into the underbrush.
The explosion gravely injures both young girls. Maria, dies while Sofia holds her hand, and Sofia is left behind to cope with her sister’s absence and to endure the terrible and lasting effects of her injuries. Unable to safe her legs, the hospital staff amputates first the right leg and, four days later, the left leg. What follows are months of theory, as Sofia lives, initially, at the hospital and later, at a home for elderly people, while she is measured for prostheses.
and is taught to walk again. Though very lonely because Mother Lydia cannot afford to visit often, the young girl makes friends among the women who sell food and goods on the street outside the hospital, and with the doctor in charge of her care. The kind-hearted Dr. Raul buys Sofia oranges, and visits and encourages her whenever his schedule permits. It is Dr. Raul who offers to drive her home to her village when she is finally well enough to go.
Home again after several months, Sofia discovers that much has changed and realizes she cannot remain in her mother’s hut. Crippled by her injuries, she has become a liability to her family, and must find the means to make her own way in the world. Rescued by Dr. Raul, Sofia learns that, despite her disabilities, she possesses a strength of character that will help her overcome every obstacle.
Secrets in the Fire is the story of a young girl’s courage and indomitable spirit. It also tells a tale about the destructive power of land mines. Winner of the 2002 International Kankei Children’s Publishing Culture Award, Henning Mankell’s book is a worthy addition to a growing library of titles about the effects of war upon children.
FernFolio Editor

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