When You Know Your Heart is Going to Break: Little Family by Ishmael Beah

If you had to survive on the streets, could you do it? Would you even know where to start?

I’m always amazed that I find myself defaulting to, “This must be natural for these characters,” when reading a novel about people really, truly, fending for themselves in object poverty. Is it that the story itself is written in such a subtle fashion that daily grifting feels normal, or am I missing a window into what has to be absolute terror, masked as casual indifference, in these characters?

In Ishmael Beah’s “Little Family,” readers become entwined in the lives of five children surviving on their wits in a Zimbabwe city. Having created a home of sorts on the outskirts of an airfield, sleeping inside an abandoned fuselage, Elimane, Khoudi, Ndevui, Kpindi and Namsa spend their days in town stealing what they can to stay alive, and their nights enjoying whatever spoils they collected during the day.

For Elimane, the inferred patriarch of the clan, there is the constant desire to both provide and protect, which leads to a dangerous relationship with a well-connected criminal. For Khoudi, the inferred matriarch, the transition she finds herself in from girl to woman sparks the desire to be anything but a homeless child of the streets.

And, of course, because these two things — Elimane’s profitable-yet-life-threatening relationship with William Handkerchief and Khoudi’s budding romance with the son of an elite businessman — can’t co-exist, you know your heart is going to be stomped on by the book’s end.

I read Beah’s memoir, “A Long Way Gone,” a while back and am not sure why I didn’t write about it, as I remember being incredibly moved by his story. So, in reading this, I know there is truth in fiction. And like before, I am kind of both disturbed and mesmerized at how commonplace it feels for these kids to get up every day and head into town to grift like nobody’s business. It would be like if a small gang of homeless kids lived in my back alley and spent their days hanging outside of Starbucks trying to blend in with yoga moms in order to scam a coffee, then headed to the loading dock at Dick’s Sporting Goods and grabbed a box of jerseys of the back of a truck. And that would be just normal. Like, no big deal.

Surreal.

Are there issues with the outcome? Sure. I feel like I was left hanging when it came to learning about both Elimane’s and Khoudi’s families. And the ending …. wah! But even though for some reason (Oh, I know the reason — I am spending far too much time on the Twitter, doom scrolling and fingers crossed for some sign Biden has got this locked down) it took me two weeks to complete the book, a normal person should be able to read this quickly. It’s engrossing and blessedly compact, compared to some of the books waiting for me on my bedside table.

I hope Khoudi finds love. I hope she and Elimane reunite. I hope Namsa is able to keep her joy. I hope we all can.

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