Two teenagers are caught up in the melee as rival ethnic factions turn their Congolese city into a bloody battleground in this harrowing novel by Dongala (Little Boys Come from the Stars, etc.). Laokolé, a bright girl of 16 who dreams of one day becoming an engineer, flees home ahead of the marauding militias. With her younger brother and legless mother (whom she pushes in a wheelbarrow), she struggles not only to stay alive but to sustain her hopes for the future. Alternate chapters give readers the boastful voice of 15-year-old Johnny Mad Dog, a member of the Death Dealers militia, as he patrols the city with his Uzi, looting, raping and killing, eager to prove himself a man. Dongala, a native of the Congo Republic (formerly French Congo), offers an unflinching look at the greed and ignorance that drives fighters like Mad Dog, as well as the fear, desperation and anger of those trapped in the cross fire. Despite occasional wooden dialogue and the rather stagey showdown between the two narrators, Dongala frames some powerful questions: namely, how humans can be so cruel, and conversely, how do they maintain their humanity in the face of unremitting ugliness? As Mad Dog himself half-marvels, half-laments, "even if we looted them a thousand times, they would always manage to hang onto something." (May)
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This novel of civil war in West Africahas two teen narrators, and while both are more eloquent and grown-up in their thinking than seems possible, that barely detracts from the story's devastating power. The first storyteller is the eponymous Johnny, a child soldier serving in an irregular militia whose side has just won power. Johnny fancies himself an intellectual, but he constantly muddles history, and he struggles endlessly to think of an appropriately ruthless nickname for himself. The second narrator, Laokole, tells the same tale of murder, rape, and devastation that Johnny does but from a different perspective: that of a 16-year-old girl who just wants to save her younger brother and legless mother from the violence. A good student who wants to attend university, Laokole's journey of survival is particularly gut-wrenching because it alternates with Johnny's pathetic, adolescent evilness. At the beginning, Laokole wants to be an engineer; by the end, she wishes to be an astronaut. It's a magnificent symbol for Laokole's coming-of-age; her world, it seems, cannot be rebuilt--only escaped. John Green
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