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Bewildering Stories

Kristen Ball, A Calf Named Brian Higgins:
An Adventure in Rural Kenya

reviewed by Alison McBain

A Calf Named Brian Higgins:
An Adventure in Rural Kenya
Author: Kristen Ball
Publisher: One Elm Books
Date: August 1, 2018
Length: 272 pages

I often enjoy an eclectic mix of styles to read when it comes to reviewing books. I tend not to limit myself, even if I have favorite genres that I return to time and again. I also like to review authors local to me, if possible — I love being able to meet face-to-face and talk about books and writing in general. I’m lucky enough to live in a mecca of writers; you can’t swing a cat without hitting a published author. If I just wanted to focus on Connecticut writers, I’d have enough review books to last me until 2036 or thereabouts.

I recently met local author Kristen Ball, who turned her experiences in rural Kenya into a middle grade adventure called A Calf Named Brian Higgins: An Adventure in Rural Kenya. The story centers around Hannah Higgins, a thirteen-year-old who accompanies her mother to Kenya in order to help out her Uncle Brian. He works at ICRAF, The World Agroforestry Center in Kisumu, which is an organization that helps build sustainability programs in developing nations.

Hannah is from the United States and she has multiple instances of culture shock as she gets used to the idea of a place where it’s a cause to celebrate when no one dies from hunger for a year, malaria is a fact of life, and running water is a luxury. The description of the country’s setting is stark and realistic, the characters interesting, and the storyline compelling and complex enough to captivate middle grade readers.

Landing in Nairobi airport, Hannah starts out by noticing how the things she’s always taken for granted are missing. For example, her Uncle Brian is absent, having been delayed meeting them at the airport because of a broken-down bus. Hannah and her mom have to make their way to their hotel without him.

The next day, Hannah and her mom take a small plane held together with duct tape to the small town of Kisumu. From there, they head to their lodgings for their three-week stay, a guest house run by the motherly Grace Mutuo. Uncle Brian arrives, and he takes Hannah to visit the town of Sauri where he works. Hannah is amazed at the poverty and lack of hygiene in Kisumu and Sauri. Water and electricity are infrequently supplied, and the clinic is often lacking medicine to help the residents, although the doctor does the best he can. The schools have no books for the students, and many of the children have nothing to eat at lunchtime.

Hannah is as motivated as her Uncle Brian to help. She starts a lunch program for the students at the school and quickly makes many friends. But when tragedy strikes, Hannah has to discover if she has the same humanitarian spirit as her Uncle Brian to carry on helping others even through her personal loss, or if grief will overcome her good nature.

I really enjoyed reading A Calf Named Brian Higgins and learning about the details of life in rural Kenya from a young outsider’s perspective. The language was well done, especially the incorporation of broken English and Swahili into the dialogue and narrative. Hannah is an easy character for readers to identify with; she’s friendly and outgoing, enjoys her family and friends, and is quick to learn and adapt to new situations. But she has flaws, too, which make her human. Too much change can be overwhelming for her, she can sometimes act selfishly, and she can lash out without meaning to when she feels vulnerable. Her character reacts both well and badly to stressors, and part of her story arc is her finding out her own limits, both physically and mentally.

If I had a critique, it was only a small thing that stood out to me: I felt that Hannah cried too much. As a reader, I could understand her strong emotional reaction to events and situations that seemed new and different to her, but she seemed to cry just as easily for important events, such as the death of a loved one, as for small problems, such as disliking a meal she was served. I would’ve preferred her to have some more stoicism; otherwise, her tears sometimes seem to take on a “crocodile” aspect. If she cries over everything, then nothing in particular strikes the reader as significantly tragic.

But overall, I really enjoyed reading Ms. Bell’s debut novel. It was an interesting experience reading at a middle-grade level; I read books to my kids all the time, and I think this is one that they would find fascinating and that would stick with them. The story was engaging from beginning to end and, even as an adult reader, I learned a lot about rural Kenyan culture and lifestyle.

I look forward to reading more work by Ms. Bell and hopefully reading it to my kids as well.

Copyright © 2018 by Alison McBain

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