Elizabeth Stewart’s Blue Gold shifts from North America and Fiona, to Africa and Sylvie, to Asia and Laiping. Although the subject matter is markedly different, questions of identity and complications uniquely rooted in these girls’ coming-of-age are prominent in all three narratives.
Laiping’s chronicle of life as a “factory girl” in Shenzeng, overtly addresses the question of being “good”, obedient and complicit, in a way which might be unfamiliar to many readers. But each of the girls struggles to meet expectations of authority figures in their lives, whether in a workplace, a home, or a refugee camp.
And although the penalties for behaving outside these guidelines are different for each girl, the constant threat and vulnerability is something that they share as each struggles to respond to situations in which they feel powerless.
Sylvie’s experiences after fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, inhabiting a refugee camp, are most egregious. This is presented in vague terms initially.
“But nobody talked about what tragedies they had endured there. It was taken for granted that everyone in the camp had lost someone they loved—a child, a spouse, sometimes a whole family. Talking about it was too painful. It seemed to Sylvie that everyone here was waiting for pain to end and for life to begin again.”
But Sylvie shares more of her story when an aid worker gains her trust and in time readers hear those details too. This is difficult to read about, but readers are shielded because neither Sylvie nor her listener dare to delve too deeply into the young girl’s memories at that time (and, indeed, there are aspects of Sylvie’s experience which are not disclosed until near the end of the novel).
Sylvie’s narrative is vitally important because it provides the anchor for the other girls’ stories. Her homeland is the region which is being mined for “the blue-black nuggets of columbite-tantalite ore that was plentiful in the high-lands surrounding their valley…blue gold”.
The coltan is shipped to factories like the one in which Laiping works and is a vital component in the cell phones which play a significant role in fuelling the cyber-bullying which Fiona faces.
The link between the narratives is evident within a few chapters of the novel, but the threads are not overtly tied until specific plot events unfold and, even then, the web is not tightly drawn.
This is appropriate because although the connections are undeniably true, these are not ties which are immediately evident. The back of the book lists additional resources for readers whose curiosity about human rights violations and environmental stewardship has been piqued.
Katherine, Fiona, Sylvie and Laiping embody stories that many readers of all ages will find compelling.
I had more to say about this novel, here, on BuriedInPrint.