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“Hum If You Don’t Know the Words”

by Bianca Marais

Putnam, 420 pp., $26

In her debut novel, Bianca Marais blends history with fiction. She was born in South Africa in 1976, the year of the Soweto Uprising led by black students protesting apartheid. Although the initial June 16 march was intended to be peaceful, white police opened fire, killing and wounding many young demonstrators.

But a mere 20 miles from there, Marais, the white daughter of parents who both worked full time, was raised by a black maid. That whites entrusted their children to the very people they also despised and disparaged became a compelling theme to Marais.

For her book, she created two narrative lines: one, that of Robin Conrad, the 9-year-old daughter of a comfortably well-off family in the whites-only suburb of Witpark in the city of Boksburg; and two, of Beauty Mbali, the black middle-aged mother of four who lives in a nameless rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei. Her husband died in a mining accident, leaving her to raise their children alone. One of her sons died in a flood and her only daughter, Nomsa, lives with Beauty’s brother Andile in Zondi, a neighborhood in the middle of Soweto, while studying.

Author appearance

Bianca Marais

The author of “Hum If You Don’t Know the Words” will read and sign books at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 19, at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle (800-335-7323 or bookstore.washington.edu).

When Beauty receives a letter from Andile that Nomsa is in extreme danger, she packs her Bible and a few clothes, bids the boys goodbye and travels 900 kilometers to Soweto, intending to bring her daughter home. The trip takes more than two days. And when she finally arrives, exhausted and dirty, the noise and crowds are shocking, as are the soldiers and guns everywhere.

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Beauty goes directly to Morris Isaacson High School, but the gates are open, the grounds deserted. A teacher tells her the students have all gone to the protest march. In the chaos, Beauty searches for but can’t find Nomsa.

Later that same day, June 16, Robin’s parents go out for dinner. They leave her in the care of Mabel, their black maid. But although Robin is frightened, her mother promises they will come home. They’re both murdered that night, however, their throats slashed by black men. Mabel abandons Robin, desperate for her own peace and safety.

Having set up her story, Marais depicts Beauty’s efforts to find Nomsa and Robin’s new life in an apartment with Edith Vaughn, her mother’s single and somewhat flaky sister. The two main characters are eventually drawn together: Robin needs someone to look after her while Edith, who works for an airline, is away traveling; Beauty needs employment to obtain a pass book, which allows her to get around the city legally as she looks for Nomsa.

Robin struggles with her grief, in part coping by having an imaginary twin sister, in part by becoming the reluctant girlfriend to a neighbor boy, and in large part by coming to love and truly appreciate Beauty as an intelligent, compassionate human being. It is a classic loss-of-innocence story with a striking social backdrop, well-researched and dosed with humor and humility.

Marais’ affection and respect for Beauty, her desire to tell a worthy tale, is well balanced with the spunky, resilient Robin.