Here's an affecting nonfiction story with an exotic setting and a cheery narrator you come to adore and root for, who must fend for himself as he navigates a world of easily decoded characters (good, bad and of use to the tale). "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope" is a book you can read to your preteen kids. Your preteen kids can read it to you. Its author, William Kamkwamba, might actually be interesting, one suspects after hunting him up on YouTube and getting the scent of an intense, shy, amazingly bright, near-kid, mostly self-educated, who did something remarkable in spite of horrendous conditions.
But you can't quite tell, because this autobiography was co-written with a professional and accomplished author, Bryan Mealer, a war reporter and former Esquire editor, in a writing process that, perhaps inevitably, may have masked Kamkwamba's inner life. The collaboration has resulted in an adverse but Disney-fied Malawi, Africa, and a narrator who comes across as simply can-do in the face of a famine so punishing it kills some of his neighbors.
He emerges from the crush of a food distribution point cheated, but still gripping half his allocation of grain, and exultantly speeds home on his bike, battered but providing. Meanwhile, his father can't muster the $80 to keep him in school. His teachers let him stay a while anyhow. On his own, he discovers a windmill plan in an elementary physics text on the one-shelf school library. Over months, with determination, while fighting obstacles, he scavenges and converts parts -- a bike generator and frame, PVC pipe -- into windmill parts. In a climactic and metaphorical scene, he climbs the stick-tower he's built, untethers the ersatz blades and lights a lamp for fellow villagers.
What happens next? Essentially, a god descends from the heavens and rewards him. He's discovered by a wandering Westerner connected to TED (see www.ted.com), an international foundation that strives to "bring together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes)." He's whisked off to California, where he indeed offers a talk about building his windmill, then returns to his village and builds an even better windmill.
What does all this end up meaning? It's a tough call, because the tale has such an atypically wondrous and unrepeatable outcome. In spite of the book's specific account of the famine and references to the harsh heritage of a colonial past, the work deflects as much as it evokes the region's miseries. Journalists familiar with rural Africa say that such industrious tinkering is not unusual, but an exuberant making-do in nations struggling to develop. Surely Kamkwamba's sudden anointing was a freak, and this side of a miraculous intervention, a one-off solution. Score one for globalization.
Mark Kramer was founding director of Harvard's Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism and writer-in-residence at Smith College and Boston University.