The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story Of War and What Came After from Clemantine Wamariya is the moving memoir of a Rwandan refugee. In truth, it’s the story of Wamariya, her sister Claire, and a variety of other family members. But it’s told by Wamariya, who was displaced from her home by conflict at just six years old.

If you have a six or seven-year old in your life, like I do, think about them being alone with just an older sibling. This is what happened to Clemantine and Claire. My granddaughters are their age. I can’t even begin to imagine them landing on their feet after so much struggle.

The book starts with a map of Eastern Africa, including various refugee camps. This clues you in about the journey these two girls were forced to travel. Every time they start to establish a sense of place, intervening forces make another move inevitable.

Part of the journey is in Africa, during the time Wamariya was ages six to twelve. At that point, she and Claire receive asylum in the United States. Fully half of the book discusses how they adjusted to being in Chicago instead of the various African countries. Although the U.S. years don’t include fear for their lives, their experience as refugees in America is essential to the story.

My conclusions:

I read this in a weekend where the experience of children forcibly and/or negligently separated from their parents was all over the news. It’s hard to be so heartbreakingly timely in my reading choices.

I’m deeply impressed by Clemantine Wamariya, as a survivor and a writer. She draws you immediately into her story, with details and emotional experiences. In college, one of her professors says her job is, “… to interrogate the details of our lives and create maps, however incomplete, of our interior worlds.” That’s exactly what Wamariya does, for herself and her reader.

Wamariya has a unique voice, combining eloquence with reserve. Even when she tells about harrowing emotional experiences, Clemantine seems comfortable with her inner landscape. It wasn’t always that way, and she tells about that journey as well. It’s amazing to be invited inside her story.

Like its author, this book is small but mighty. It’s about survival, against the odds. Please give it a go!

Note: The statuette in the photo is from Indonesia, but I thought it was a good match with the book.