Title: When the Ground is Hard
Author: Malla Nunn
Genre: Crime/Mystery, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: June 2019
Synopsis: This CBCA short-listed book is a stunning and heartrending mystery set in a Swaziland boarding school about two girls of different castes who bond over a shared copy of Jane Eyre.
SHORTLISTED: CBCA 2020 Awards, Book of the Year, Older Readers
Adele loves being one of the popular girls at Keziah Christian Academy. She knows the upcoming semester at school will be great with her best friend Delia at her side. Then Delia dumps her for a new girl with more money, and Adele is forced to share a room with Lottie, the school pariah, who doesn’t pray and defies teachers’ orders.
As they share a copy of Jane Eyre, Lottie’s gruff exterior and honesty grow on Adele, and together they take on bullies and protect each other from the vindictive and prejudiced teachers. When a boy goes missing on campus, Adele and Lottie must work together to solve the mystery, in the process learning the true meaning of friendship.
A Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2020 Notable Book, Highly Commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, winner of the 2019 Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, winner of the Children’s Book Committee’s 2020 Josette Frank Award and shortlisted for the 2020 LA Times Book Prize for Young Adults.
In apartheid-era Swaziland, Adele Joubert and Lottie Diamond attend Keziah Christian Academy – a boarding school for mixed race students. These are the students who are somewhere in the middle of the racial and social rankings based on the apartheid system but are still separated from white and black communities based on the laws of the time. Adele has been part of the popular crowd. That is, until her slot in the pretties is taken by a richer girl. Adele is relegated to sharing a room with the poor student, Lottie Diamond, and Dead Lorraine’s room.
At first, Adele and Lottie struggle to get along, but find connection in books, specifically Jane Eyre, and a time when you can be cast out and bullied for the slightest difference. As Lottie and Adele’s friendship with each other, and fellow student, Darnell, grows, the two girls face bullies and tragedy together. They fight for their place to belong, and stand up against vindictive and at times, racist teachers.
The disappearance of a fellow student brings them closer together, and they learn more about themselves, each other and their heritage than they ever knew, and Adele finds that she can be herself with Lottie. She doesn’t have to pretend like she had to with her former friends. Lottie is a true friend, and she guides Adele through a tricky few weeks as the two girls form a bond that ensures they will always have each other when they face the cruelties of their school, society and the Bosman family.
Set in the 1960s, this book is threaded with the undercurrents and impacts of
racism, oppression and apartheid in a world that isn’t accepting of difference, illustrated through the treatment of students based on wealth, how the Bosman family treats Keziah students through racism, and the power he thinks he should have over them. It is also shown through the teachers – the assumption that the American missionary teachers are better than those they work with, and how Adele is also treated differently to Lottie at times, based on wealth and preconceived ideas.
This book speaks to the heart and difficulties of South Africa and Swaziland under the rule of apartheid. The rules and laws are threaded throughout as Adele tells her story of the first few weeks of the new school year, and her experiences. Some are universal, and some are unique to her and her society. This is what makes the book powerful. The thrum of an African heart beats throughout this novel, and evokes a sense of time, place and character. The land is a strong aspect a strong character. It is perhaps stronger than the Christian religion Adele tries to uphold. It is Lottie who unlocks this power within Adele, the shared Swazi and Zulu identity, and shows her that she can accept all parts of her identity.
I can see why this book has received so many awards, commendations and nominations. It is diverse yet seen through eyes that not many of us have. It is an experience that some readers won’t know much about, but there are universal themes of friendship, class, race, and gender that everyone will find something they can relate to. Adele and Lottie were powerful, diverse and complicated characters, who helped each other grow throughout the novel and found something that connected them more than anything that had ever connected Adele to the popular girls.
As I read this book, I could smell and hear Africa, I could feel Africa. The animals, the grass, the voices and the music. It is woven delicately and subliminally through the narrative, and presents a backdrop that gives When the Ground is Hard a true sense of place and transports the reader to a time and place when things were grim, but where the power of friendship could bring light to people’s lives.