Susan Minot’s extraordinary novel Thirty Girls takes its title from a tragedy that occurred in Aboke, a town in rural Uganda, in 1996. Rebel bandits from a Christian militant organization called the Lord’s Resistance Army—headed by the now-infamous Joseph Kony—stormed a Catholic boarding school and abducted more than a hundred of the students, thirty of whom remained captive for years. In this exclusive feature, we’ll trace how Minot wove these harrowing real-life events into Thirty Girls to render, in the words of The New York Times Book Review, a book of “quiet humanity and probing intelligence.”
The first chapters of the novel faithfully depict the chaos of the kidnapping and its immediate aftermath. As in real life, after that fateful night, one of the head nuns follows the soldiers into the bush and begs their commander to release her students. She successfully retrieves all but thirty of them. Feeling helpless and desperate, she implores the captain to let the remaining captives go and asks him why Kony needs these young, innocent girls. His response chills her to the bone: “To increase our family…. Kony wants a big family.”
The novel then focuses on one of the thirty girls, Esther Akello, as she struggles to survive, escape, and eventually recover from the trauma of captivity. Through her voice, Minot conveys the unrelenting evil that the real-life Aboke girls were subjected to. Once Esther manages to escape, she settles into a rehabilitation center, where she must find a way to live with the unspeakable atrocities she has seen and been forced to commit: “When they ask us to speak, I cannot find the words. What I have inside is for me to look at alone. Who else can know it? Not anyone. I cannot say it out loud. How can one tell a story so full of shame?”
Minot’s visceral portrayal of Esther’s pain is based on the author’s own experiences in Uganda interviewing eyewitnesses and survivors. She learned about the kidnappings from the mother of one of the abductees at a dinner party in New York. The story took hold of Minot, and she ended up going to Uganda and reporting on it. The second narrative in the book follows Jane Wood, who, like Minot, is an American writer traveling across Africa, hoping to give voice to the young women who’ve fallen prey to the Lord’s Resistance Army. Although Jane’s character bears some similarities to Minot, her story is fictional. She is trying to heal from the death of her ex-husband, and the juxtaposition between Jane and Esther serves to underscore the differences as well as similarities between the two women as they try to move on with their lives.
Esther experiences unimaginable cruelty, yet some of the real-life thirty girls fared even worse. Five died in captivity; a few remained with the Lord’s Resistance Army for years. And these girls aren’t Kony’s only victims. Since the mid-1980s, his rebels have wreaked havoc on northern Uganda, preying on the local population and kidnapping children to be made into child soldiers or sex slaves. However, it wasn’t until the 2012 viral video describing Kony’s wrongdoings that his brutal tactics became widely known. To this day, he remains at large, most likely hiding in a neighboring African country. He’s wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Almost a decade has passed since the kidnappings described in Thirty Girls, but the subject matter remains resonant. Just last year, about two hundred girls were taken from a boarding school in Nigeria, drawing international attention and prompting the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign.
Many, including Minot, have reported on the Aboke kidnappings and their aftermath. By blending fact and fiction, Minot was able to write the story from the inside out and convey the deep psychological ramifications of Kony’s actions through Esther’s first-person narrative. With mesmerizing emotional intensity, Minot has managed to give the thirty girls a voice, to humanize them and make them come alive in the pages of her book—thus appealing not only to our sense of justice but also to our hearts.