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Burn My Heart
Naidoo, Beverley; Burn My Heart. New York, NY : HarperCollins / Amistad, 2009. $16.89, ISBN 9780061432989 (lib)ISBN Paper 9780061432972 (trade) .

Note: Mathew and Mugo, two boys one white, one black, share an uneasy friendship in Kenya in the 1950s as the independence struggle erupts.(CABA Honor)


This novel by celebrated author Beverley Naidoo tells a serious story of colonialism in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion through the eyes of two boys, Mathew and Mugo; the embodiment of oppressor and oppressed respectively. Mathew is the grandson of British colonialists while Mugo is the grandson of Kikuyu farmers whose land was taken by the British government and sold to Mathew's grandfather at giveaway prices (33). Vivid, gripping descriptions catch readers' imagination and expand insight, allowing them to live the moment with the characters, their families and their everyday routines.

The book provides important moral lessons that can be applied in situations where stereotypes, injustices and other discriminatory practices thrive. Naidoo uses Mathew and Mugo's unique and almost forbidden friendship to extract lessons that are applicable in today's society; that we all should have open, accommodating spirits instead of judging each other by the color of our skins or by what we have or don't have. She shows how adult misperceptions can influence children to draw false conclusions about others. The book also makes us realize that freedom is not always free, a parallel that can be drawn even in contemporary times as people around the world fight for their land and freedom,just like the Mau Mau fought for their "ithaka na wiyathi." 

Although the setting of the book is in the combative fifties when indigenous Kenyans sought independence from the British, the Kenyan boy and the British boy get along oblivious of resentment between the two groups. In fact they work hard to maintain their friendship amidst threats and the negative energy that flows between the local British settlers and the Kenyans. Readers can draw parallels with racism, stereotyping, apartheid, and the profiling of certain groups in society. These lessons underscore the importance of conflict resolution in countries with diverse populations and highlight the need for those with power and privilege to accept the oneness of humanity and to realize that justice and fairness are the foundations of great societies. Troubling, however, are the similarities between Naidoo's novel, first published in 2007, and Meja Mwangi's book, The Mzungu Boy, first published in 1990. Naidoo has used the same style, same story line, and same genre. At times it seemed as though I was reading The Mzungu Boy all over again! I wondered if this was a coincidence or if Naidoo was influenced by Meja Mwangi's work. In a recently published article, Naidoo offers an explanation, noting that she learned of Mwangi's book only after hers was completed (See A Dream to Many Youth: On Writing Burn My Heart in Sankofa, A Journal of African Children's and Young Adult Literature Vol.8 2009). Naidoo adds more about the Mau Mau rebels, a topic that The Mzungu Boy glosses over, but I found The Mzungu Boy more gripping and more interesting. As the story develops, Naidoo introduces so many characters, a reader could easily lose track of who is who and how they fit into the storyline. Still I recommend Burn my Heart and suggest that young people read both books!!

Copyright Africa Access, 2009.

Rating: HR Grade: E / M Type: Book

Reviewed by: Jane Irungu, University of Kansas

Subject: Fiction / Kenya / Mau Mau Rebellion / Sankofa