As Laugh with the Moon begins, 13-year-old Clare is accompanying her father on a nine-week medical mission to Malawi. Having worked there in the Peace Corps before she was born, he hopes this experience will bring the two of them closer together. Clare is still grieving the death of her mother and is angry she's been torn from her routines of her daily life. But Malawi is a world away from Massachusetts, and the people she meets politely, but firmly, refuse to accept her bad behavior, instead integrating her into community life.
There is a phrase often thrown around these days, "first world problems," which refers to a growing awareness that the worst day most of us will have in the United States is nothing compared to the daily difficulties that people face in other parts of the world. It’s usually used as a way to dismiss whatever trouble a privileged person is experiencing. One of the primary challenges of writing a book like Laugh with the Moon is granting both its characters and the readers a view into the everyday realities faced by the people who live in Malawi without dismissing Clare's problems or stripping the Malawian people of their dignity.
Author Shana Burg does a good job reflecting Clare's growing consciousness and her experience encountering a completely different culture, whether it's the first friend she makes there --- a girl named Memory, who has lost both of her parents --- or her experiences with local foods. Burg goes as far as to describe the latrines they use at school or how everyone skips lunch at school to both save on food and ensure there is no envy between students. The reader becomes aware along with Clare that the material goods we take for granted in everyday life --- like school supplies and clothing that fits --- can make or break a child’s education.
She also demonstrates how unnecessary those supplies are when students are motivated to learn. When the standard one (kindergarten) teacher leaves the school, Clare is asked to step in to teach them English lessons. In a classroom with 176 students and no school supplies, how can she teach? Guided by memories of her mother --- also a teacher --- she uses games like Simon Says and the Hokey Pokey to teach English words for parts of the body, forming letters out of clay from termite hills dried in the sun to show them the alphabet, and scratching letters in the dirt because paper is not always available.
Burg herself traveled to Malawi for a project involving the schools they have there. She describes the way bush schools often have a difficult time keeping teachers and how hard it is for kids to stay in school when they are needed elsewhere. School supplies often sit in city warehouses because there's no way to deliver them to bush schools, many of which are not even on the map. Laugh with the Moon was written by Burg in part from wanting to share those experiences with her students in a way they can understand.
When I first started this book, I will admit that Clare's attitude grated on me. But Laugh with the Moon won me over in the same way Malawi wins Clare over. Burg's attention to detail ensures that the world she writes about is dimensional, and Clare's adventures --- though ordinary --- are interesting and feel real. But I cannot tell you about this book without warning you that there is a death towards the ending that is unexpected and heartbreaking. It highlights the kind of inequalities that we often feel hopeless to address.
In her notes at the end of the book, Burg writes that in Malawi 20% of children die before the age of five, mostly due to malnutrition. Characters in the book repeatedly refer to "the hunger season," meaning the season before harvest when food is scarce. Though Burg is careful not to belittle Clare's grief for her mother in a village where death visits often and takes the most vulnerable, she does address the role a larger community can play in coping with these losses.
Mrs. Bwanali, the housekeeper that comes with the house where Clare and her father are staying, tells her early on in the book that in Malawi there is a saying: mwana wa m'zako ndiwako yemwe. "What does this mean...? It means, 'the child that belong to my neighbor also belong to me.'" Laugh with the Moon subtly asks the question of whether or not we can say the same.
A read-a-like title for Laugh with the Moon is Fish by L.S. Matthews. About the child of foreign aid workers in a war torn country, it deals with a child's decision to save a fish from a quickly drying puddle and the impact this has on the people around him.
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