The Way We Bared Our Souls
by Willa Strayhorn
Penguin, 2015, 277 pp., $17.99
Historical/Cultural Fiction, Magical Realism
Five teenagers, each with a burden that could break them, come together in a mystical ceremony in which they trade afflictions and the totems that signify them. Consuelo (Lo) has symptoms of multiple sclerosis; Thomas is a boy soldier from Liberia with recurring memories of the violence of war; Kaya, always in danger because she cannot feel pain, has a rare condition; Ellen is destroying herself with drugs; and Kit, whose girlfriend died in a car accident, has become terrified of death. They bond and suffer a tragedy that changes them. Perhaps Kaya, a Native American, has the most difficult time. Having taken on Thomas’ war traumas, she suffers from memories of historical atrocities against her ancestors. Magical realism is a literary construct that portrays magical or unreal elements as a natural part in an otherwise realistic or mundane environment. A coyote who can cause this exchange of afflictions, appears in several scenes to blend the two realities. Because Thomas’ story of being kidnapped and forced into being a soldier is an important aspect of African history that could be studied in social studies. Equally, the atrocities committed on the Native American peoples by the U.S. government in the 1800s should definitely be discussed in social studies classes. Other than these historical/cultural aspects of the novel, readers can also enjoy the book as a story of survival and the endurance of the human spirit.
Reviewed by Patricia P. Kelly