On Easter, my grandfather told us more about his family growing up. We’ve been asking more questions ever since he dropped the bomb at dinner one night last month: “My father fought in the Spanish-American War!” Wait. WHAT?!? It was one of those moments — you know the ones — where history suddenly feels very real. My grandfather feels a little more magical these days (we already knew he could fix anything and everything) because we realized he’s basically an under-appreciated living history museum.
On Easter, as I was saying, he told us about his family, especially his (much older) brother. The boys in this family were interested in electricity from a young age. I remember my grandfather telling me a story about how he (my grandfather) wired his tricycle with a bicycle dynamo so that it had a headlamp. (It was a big tricycle, so he wasn’t as young as you might be imagining.) His brother, who I never realized also had this scientific bent, taught classes on various electrical-type sciences at some university near the Ozarks where they all grew up. He was self-educated and got much of his start by taking apart radios and figuring out how they worked. He eventually became the kid everyone brought their broken radios to for repair.
As my grandfather briefly told the story, I was bursting. This reminds me so much of the book we’ve been reading aloud! I told him, my children all nodding their heads in agreement.
I’ve added the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind to my Antifragile Reading List for Children and Their Parents. This is the first addition I’ve made to the list since I first published it. (I wanted it to be a growing list.) It is one of the most worthy books on the list. (I have some of you to thank for this because you recommended it to me in the comments of that list months ago when it first came out.)
This book blew me away. It’s a memoir, which was nice because I believe this was our first time reading that genre aloud. It was good to branch out. But the striking thing about the book is not its genre; it’s the amazing ingenuity of the boy William Kamkwamba.
The book begins by introducing the reader to William’s Malawian culture, which is a brilliant thing to do since most Americans buying the book would be clueless about that. He describes it in a living way — we can see it, smell it, taste it. Early on, we get to see it during a good time. Sure, it is poor compared to a Western nation, but as I said above, it mostly reminded me of here a hundred years or so ago (my own grandmother grew up in the Ozarks in house without running water). The people mostly have shelter, jobs, food to eat, farms to cultivate.
But this was the edge of survival, and when famine hit, Malawi went over that edge. William’s description of the famine and its progression was so important, I think. This was not a tug-at-your-heart-strings appeal. This was raw and real and you felt like you were in it with him. (So good, I think, for children who have never had to worry very much about these things.)
William’s family survives the famine, but there is nothing left. Savings are gone and debt has been added. William was supposed to enter secondary school, but all the funds have disappeared.
Long story short, William spends his spare hours mostly in a library, or reading in his hammock under a mango tree. He discovers some books on physics and is captivated by the idea of electricity. Eventually, these ideas bear fruit in the dream of building a windmill and providing electricity for his family (it would save them all their kerosene money and maybe even help pump water for their farming).
The problem, of course, is that if there is no money for school, there is also no money for supplies. And this is where the adventure begins, and also why this book made the list. What follows is a story of creative genius at work. Having only an idea in his mind, faith in his heart, and the luxury of time and energy, William begins to make it happen in spite of the difficulty. When he cannot find a circuit breaker, nor make one the traditional way, he learns the concept well enough to build one with what he does have (and it works). He rummages through a junk yard day after day, searching for parts and odd pieces of metal. He digs up old (used) plumbing PVC pipes and melts them down in order to make them into other things (like windmill blades).
And oh, the triumph, when he makes a radio work for the first time, and later lights up his first light bulb using only the wind.
It was such a beautiful thing. What a glorious book!
A Few Final Thoughts
I found myself wondering whether we actually limit our children by providing so much for them. (Which is funny because I think my husband and I often provide less for our children than many other families we know.) What I mean is, so often I provide their parts and the tools. And in many ways, this is great. It’s being supportive. It’s not like I’m telling them what to do with these things. But I think of one of my children who doesn’t ask for help very often. She is always digging through our trash and pulling things out and then later I find she has taught herself to build bird traps and rabbit cages and all sorts of odd and wonderful things. By not providing everything for her, her mind gets a greater workout, I think.
I loved William’s heart. His dream at the end of the book is to provide electricity for his whole village. His heart to serve those he loves is a beautiful thing.
If you choose to read this book aloud, it’s probably best done with teens. If you’re handing it off, you’ll want to read it first. The Lord’s name is used in vain a number of time. Also, there is a bit of mature content, and I can’t make a call for you. I read the part aloud, for example, about the man who had gonorrhea whose testicle actually burst, but some of you might want to skip this. Most of the chapters don’t contain this type of content, but promiscuity, prostitution, and sexually-transmitted diseases are big issues in Malawi, it seems, and I wouldn’t expect the author to leave it out. However, that doesn’t mean that all children are necessarily ready for it. It’s easy to skip if you need to; I recommend reading it a bit in advance so you can make a wise decision for your own family.
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