Of all the myriad and horrific casualties of war, victims’ stories are probably the least recognized.
Civil wars like Liberia’s — which claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people between 1989 and 2003 — are widely discussed by the international community and well-meaning Western political observers, but rarely do we hear the first-person voices of those who were on the ground during these conflicts, trying to survive through the chaos with their families. Even less common are the voices of women and children in these narratives.
But in her vivid new memoir, “The Dragons, the Giant, the Women,” Liberian-American writer Wayétu Moore successfully challenges all of this representational violence, articulating a multigenerational story of resilience and ingenuity in a time of crisis.
Moore’s 2018 debut was the stunning novel “She Would Be King,” and she follows up her fantastical tale of African diasporic superheroes with a book of gripping realism.
Moore was only 5 when the civil war began, the middle of three daughters to her young professional parents. Her mother, referred to as “Mam” throughout, is away on Fulbright fellowship in New York City in summer 1990, and after agonizing months of no news of her husband and girls, she finally locates them in her mother’s village in Northern Liberia.
As rebel forces have completely destroyed the country’s infrastructure by this point, Mam feels her only option is to travel to neighboring Freetown, Sierra Leone, herself, and enlist the help of a girl soldier to travel across the border and retrieve her husband and daughters. Mam and “Satta,” the girl soldier, are “the women” in the last part of the book’s title, as their courage and quick thinking are largely the result of the family’s reunification and eventual move to suburban Texas.
“The Dragons” of the title are the rebels and men who have ruined Liberia through their greed and unchecked lust. It is also a reference to a story of Moore’s childhood, “The Hawa Undu dragon [who] was once a prince with good intentions, who entered the forest to avenge the death of his family.” But instead, “he humbugged the animals, killed for food, forgot his promises.”
The first part of the memoir is told from Moore’s perspective as a child, navigating the treacherous war-torn terrain with Pa, who is “the giant” of the title, for the way he is seen by his daughters. As the book progresses, we also get a view into Moore’s postwar life in the States, her parents’ eventual return to Liberia, and her own trip back to find Satta. This section is the shortest in the book, and feels a bit truncated. But it is followed by the gripping final section in Mam’s voice, narrating her harrowing journey to save her family.
This is a memoir of redemption and loss, and of making peace with unresolved pasts. It functions both as a social history of a bloody conflict that is still largely misunderstood (or, worse, ignored) here in the West, and as a universal story of humankind’s ability to survive even the most brutal conflicts. As Moore writes movingly, “There are many stories of war to tell. You will hear them all. But remember among those who were lost, some made it through. Among the dragons there will always be heroes. Even there. Even then.”
Shannon Gibney lives and writes in Minneapolis.
The Dragons, the Giant, the Women
By: Wayétu Moore.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 264 pages, $26.