Book Review: Burn My Heart
written by: Beverley Naidoo
published by: Amistad, an Imprint of HarperCollins, 2007
Audience (reading level): 10 and up (Flesch-Kincaid 5.6)
In this historical fiction novel, Beverley Naidoo takes us to Kenya in the early 1950s. This is the story of the Mau Mau rebellion, seen through the eyes of two young boys.
Mathew and Mugo share a friendship, just as their fathers had before them. The boys are the third generation of their families living in British-occupied Kenya. What had been the tribal land of Mugo’s grandfather now belonged to the Graysons. By British decree, Mathew’s grandfather owned 5,000 acres. The Kikuyus – Mugo’s people – were hired as staff and were allowed to create a homestead on some of the land.
It is November 1951, and the rumblings of a rebellion against the British occupiers are beginning to grow. Talk of the Mau Mau among adults was now spilling over to young ears, including Mugo’s and Mathew’s. This is where the story begins and their lives begin to diverge.
- Mathew believes that loyalty and friendship will protect them from the Mau Mau. Mugo is his friend. They do fun things together, they share secrets. Mugo saved his life – twice!
- When Mugo witnesses a Mau Mau initiation meeting – and sees his father take an oath, he is confused. Bwana Kidogo (little master) doesn’t always make good choices, but he isn’t like the white people the Mau Mau described.
Both boys struggle with trying to understand what is going on and what it means for their families. In their own way, they are angry and saddened by what is happening. Thanks in part to the heavy-handed Kenya Police Reserve, every event is blown out of proportion, fueling fear, resentment, and misunderstanding. The secrets they share become huge knots in their stomachs.
In December 1951, Lance Smithers, Mathew’s classmate and the zealot son of a Kenya Police Reserve inspector, arrives on the scene. He is a catalyst – more like a firebomb – that pushes Mathew and Mugo to harden their positions. Lance, as unlikeable as he is, is an important piece of the story. His close-minded, aggressive behavior helps the boys uncover their own feelings.
In Burn My Heart, Naidoo turns innocence on its ear. On first glance, the three boys’ indiscretions (disobeying a parent so they can hunt, staying up past bedtime, keeping secrets) seem typical of a young boys. They are children, and these are innocent, minor things. No one got hurt. As the story unfolds, that innocence is eroded. In part, because of their own actions, but also because of events thrust upon them. Yes, somebody did get hurt.
Whenever I read a book where the story built around black v. white characters, I always feel uneasy and ignorant. No matter how many stories I hear or read, I still have a difficult time understanding why people treat each other the way they do. I don’t “get” their reasoning, either.
In Burn My Heart, Naidoo helps clarify how things turn ugly. This is a story about Character. There were times in the story that I got angry at Mathew and ached for Mugo. There were times when I was angry at Mugo and ached for Mathew. In talking about the boys in her afterword, Naidoo closes with this adage:
the word in the heart is drawn out by talking.
THAT I get. Burn My Heart is exceptional, and Naidoo has crafted another wonderful story. I can easily imagine Mugo and Mathew walking down the street. There is no more Mau Mau, but fear and misunderstanding are still very much a part of this world. This is a book meant for readers pre-teen thorugh adult. It is destined to open some wonderfully thoughtful, candid discussions that are as relevant today as theywould have been in 1951.