Saba: Under the Hyena's Foot

Author: Jane Kurtz

Illustrator: Jean-Paul Tibbles

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting:  Gondar, Ethiopia, 1846


Life hasn't been easy for Saba. Her parents are both dead, so she and her brother Mesfin have been raised by their maternal grandparents. Recently, their grandfather died. There is political unrest in the area, and many in power would think nothing of stealing a child away for slavery. Saba's grandmother is also destitute. But when Saba and Mesfin are kidnapped and taken far away, Saba would give anything to be back in the hardships she had.

It's a long, hard journey to the city of Gondar. Saba relies on her older brother for strength, sure she would never make it without him. Their captors act strangely--they do small favors like giving them special food as treats "for the sake of your father." Saba at first thinks this is the customary thing to say when giving a gift, but upon arrival in Gondar, learns that her father was an important man, the son of a great warrior. Saba and Mesfin are separated in Gondar at first, and Saba is surprised to find herself pampered and waited on, when she thought she had been kidnapped as a slave. It seems the emperor wants to meet with Saba and Mesfin. When they are reunited after a short time, Mesfin has also heard the rumors about their father, and furthermore that they are descended from nobility--apparently their paternal grandmother was a princess. Saba is sure he heard wrong, but nothing else contradicts his story. And indeed, when they meet with the emperor, they are introduce as the grandchildren of his sister. Furthermore, it seems that her father might not be dead after all.

Saba and Mesfin are kept mostly separate. Saba has a private tutor, and learns about Ethiopian history, and how there are have been various power struggles among the nobility for some time. She thinks that Mesfin must be receiving lessons too, undoubtedly training him to take over the thrown if their father can't be found alive--after all, he would be next in line after the current emperor. But as the days go on, Saba comes to see that the emperor's wife is trying to get her son (from her previous marriage to a military leader who is now deceased) to lead the country. Mesfin could be in terrible danger. And Saba has been promised in marriage to one of several men hoping to gain the throne. When Saba learns that father is alive and in a nearby camp, she finds a way to free Mesfin (braving literal hyenas as well as the metaphorical ones, hungry for the throne). Together, the two leave the finery of the emperor's palace behind, and ride to where their father is. They know that he can help ensure the right person is on the throne.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

Saba grew up in Ethiopia's "Age of Judges," named for a Biblical time period when, as the book of Judges puts it, there was no king and every man did as he pleased. There was a power vacuum, and different factions of nobility were locked in a bloody struggle for power. Commoners had different toils: in a land full of large predators and stricken by drought, something as simple as getting water was hazardous. They were also at risk of being kidnapped and sold as slaves. Only nobility received real education, and rarely the women. Today, rural life retains many similarities, with a lack of access to clean water, but in the cities many people have access to education and leisure activities. However, decades of political turmoil (the Age of Judges ended in 1855, but as recently as 1974 there was a military coup), widespread poverty plagues the re.


Dedicated to "Yohannes, whose determination and vision make dreams spring out of ashes." The author is also "deeply grateful to Dr. Richard Pankhurst, not only for reading this manuscript for also for writing so many bookds full of details about Ethiopian history. I'm also thankful for all the Ethiopian chroniclers and European visitors who took time to record what they saw and experienced in Ethopia. The Straw Umbrella by Dana Faralla gave me several great ideas. Yohannes Gebregeorgias and Hanna Taffessa helped me with some obscure bits of cultural research. And what would I do without my mom, lifelong avid reader and collector of books about Ethiopia? I used her copy of King of Kings: Tewodros of Ethiopia by Sven Rubenson as my definitive source about some confusing relationships and dates."

An author's note at the end of the book reveals that while Jane Kurtz is white, she lived in Ethiopia for most of her childhood, giving her first-hand experience with the culture.

The King County Library System doesn't carry this book, but I was able to get it on an inter-library loan from Pierce County, south of here.

A turning point in Saba's story comes when she attends mass for the first time, shortly after meeting with the emperor and learning her father might be alive. She's been raised in the Orthodox faith (Ethiopia has had a large Christian population since the first century AD), but never been inside a church. She's awestruck by the beauty of the place, and while still very confused about her situation, decides she can enjoy the nicer parts of it all.


Anonymous said...

Is this still American Girls? I was getting too old for them when Josefina and Kit came onto the scene, so I don't know any of them after that. But I wonder if, after you're done with these books, you'd be interested in covering the Dear America books? I remember I liked them as much as or more than AG.

SJSiff said...

Girls of Many Lands was an eight-book series put out by American Girl, yes. I didn't know about them until a couple months ago.

I don't know if I'll do Dear America. They're not American Girl, and I've moved to where the library isn't as awesome (the King County Library System is one of the best in the nation), so I don't know if I would be able to get them. But possibly.

Next month will be the Girls of the Year, for what it's worth.