Title: Dream Country
Author: Shannon Gibney
Genres: Historical, Contemporary
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC received from publisher
Availability: On shelves now
Summary: The heartbreaking story of five generations of young people from a single African-and-American family pursuing an elusive dream of freedom.
The novel begins in suburban Minneapolis at the moment when seventeen-year-old Kollie Flomo begins to crack under the strain of his life as a Liberian refugee. He’s exhausted by being at once too black and not black enough for his African American peers and worn down by the expectations of his own Liberian family and community. When his frustration finally spills into violence and his parents send him back to Monrovia to reform school, the story shifts. Like Kollie, readers travel back to Liberia, but also back in time, to the early twentieth-century and the point of view of Togar Somah, an eighteen-year-old indigenous Liberian on the run from government militias that would force him to work the plantations of the Congo people, descendants of the African-American slaves who colonized Liberia almost a century earlier. When Togar’s section draws to a shocking close, the novel jumps again, back to America in 1827, to the children of Yasmine Wright, who leave a Virginia plantation with their mother for Liberia, where they’re promised freedom and a chance at self-determination by the American Colonization Society. The Wrights begin their section by fleeing the whip and by its close, they are then ones who wield it. With each new section, the novel uncovers fresh hope and resonating heartbreak, all based on historical fact.
In Dream Country, Shannon Gibney spins a riveting tale of the nightmarish spiral of death and exile connecting America and Africa, and of how one determined young dreamer tries to break free and gain control of her destiny.
Review: (Content warnings for graphic violence, rape, police violence, racial slurs, and homophobic slurs.)
Shannon Gibney’s Dream Country is a heartbreaking look into the history of a family across two continents and almost two centuries. The sections of the novel are out of chronological order, but this back and forth between time and place effectively builds a sense of connectivity between the generations. This is most notable in how Gibney portrays violence rippling across the years, pitting people and their communities against one another. This us-versus-them mentality was a constant presence throughout the book and was especially prevalent in Kollie’s section, where he not only had to deal with racism from white members of the community but also anti-immigrant/refugee sentiment.
I was particularly drawn to Yasmine Wright’s section of Dream Country. Yasmine’s yearning for freedom took her and her children across the ocean, where they carved out new lives at their own and others’ expense. It was tragic seeing how the “heathen” rhetoric that was used to justify racism/continuation of slavery in the U.S. became a tool for Yasmine and the other colonists against the indigenous groups in Liberia. I appreciated that Gibney took the time to look at how violence and colonization changed (or didn’t change) the members of Yasmine’s family.
One thing I admire most about Gibney’s writing is how distinct the voices were for all her narrators, especially given how little space some of them got compared to others. The narrators were key in bringing each setting to life, and I cared deeply about several of them. I wished we had more of Angel’s section, though her ending narration and explanation for the stories of her family history (and her present) was well done and provided a surprisingly hopeful end to the book.
As a small side note, readers may find it useful to review the brief timeline of Liberian history provided at the back of the book before starting. While Gibney provides plenty of context to be able to figure out what’s going on, I think I would have had a better appreciation for the novel had I gone in with a framework for my own reference.
Recommendation: Get it soon. Dream Country is a thoughtful, compassionate, and heartbreaking look at the history of an African-and-American family across five different generations. Shannon Gibney’s exploration of freedom and violence and family is a worthwhile, if occasionally difficult, read.