THE FIRST THING that struck me upon receiving my copy of Black Man’s Grave was the message on the back cover: “The book they thought you should read . . . but refused to publish.” If this was a publicity angle, it seemed a rather nonsensical one to take. Who is “they”? Why did “they” think we should read it but then refuse to publish it? And if they refused to publish it, how could I be holding it in my hand?
Though I am loathe to admit that I am one of those people who will actually judge a book by its cover, it is hardly a secret that packaging matters. The surface of things is not without meaning. What you say is no more or less important than how you say it. For the last few months I have been working in communications for a nonprofit, and in my more cynical moments I have sometimes wondered if good writing is nothing more than a form of attractive packaging.
Of course, I imagine that these thoughts are more an indictment of my way of thinking than anything else, but there were many moments in Black Man’s Grave where the message got lost in the faults of the medium. Though the book is informative and well-researched, its effectiveness is hampered to a certain extent by the writing. My quarrel with the book is not so much with its substance, but with its style.
The preceding paragraph notwithstanding, there is actually much to admire about this book. The authors take pains to convey the events of Sierra Leone’s civil war as much as possible through the eyes of the people living in it, often directly transcribing the text of the letters they received from their friends. Both of the authors were Volunteers in the same village, though years apart, and as such they are well placed to comment on the Sierra Leone they both knew. The background they provided on the years leading up to the war is brief but informative, and they recount faithfully every turn that the war took as it dragged on. I can’t say that I didn’t learn anything from reading the book.
But is that all the authors were trying to do? If so, then my complaints do not amount to much, but I cannot help but feel that Stewart and Amman missed the opportunity to tell the story in a more compelling way. For them, this civil war must have been incredibly personal, and yet they are nowhere in the telling of it. For all their attempts to personalize the events by relating what happened to the people they knew, their efforts are ultimately undone by their decision to tell the story in the third person. The letters from Sierra Leone are printed on the page as if they were addressed to the omniscient narrator. No mention is made (except in the introduction) of the men these Sierra Leoneans are writing to, of how they felt when they learned that their friends were being driven from their homes, were struggling to feed themselves, were being shot at by rebels and soldiers alike. As I read I grew increasingly frustrated by the distance the authors placed between themselves and the events. I can imagine there were a number of good reasons to tell this story in the third person, but an omniscient narrator is inherently impersonal, and so they missed the opportunity to make the war personal for the reader.
In the hands of stronger writers, this flaw might have been overcome. A story does not have to be told in the first person to be compelling, and the civil war in Sierra Leone was astonishingly brutal, even on a continent that has seen more than its fair share of brutality. The members of the Revolutionary United Front were notorious for their tendency to cut off hands and legs, and even a fairly straightforward account of their exploits can engender a kind of horrified fascination. But the book’s just-the-facts-ma’am approach is so dry that my attention actually began to wander. What’s more, the authors make little attempt to analyze what ultimately caused the members of the RUF to pick up machetes and begin to literally hack their fellow countrymen into pieces. Political repression, extreme poverty, and the promise of sharing in Sierra Leone’s rich diamond deposits undoubtedly played a role, but I am not entirely satisfied with this answer. At no point do we have the opportunity to hear from one of the rebels themselves. I can only imagine how difficult obtaining such an account would have been for Amman and Stewart, but without it we are left with no real means of understanding what would lead a person to such acts. Many people live in oppressive and poverty-stricken circumstances. What separated the RUF rebels from everyone else?
Though I was ultimately unsatisfied by some of the aspects of Black Man’s Grave, I was deeply touched by some of the letters printed on its pages. They provide a window into a time and place that is hard to imagine even for those of us who have been privileged enough to spend time in Africa. Whatever reservations I may have about the way their story is told, their letters stand as a moving testimony to the ways in which human beings survive in the face of horror, and of how a country struggles to move on after a decade of war.
Liz Richardson lives in Washington DC, and works as a communications assistant for a vaccine development program.