Beyond the Mango Tree is the first novel by Amy Bronwen Zemser, a book that seems to be a fictionalized memoir of sorts. (Although I do not know how much, the book's short biography of the author say that she, like the narrator of the book, moved to Liberia as a child.) The book is quite sophisticated in style and content, even though it is labeled as being for "Ages 10 and Up". I obtained my copy for 25 cents because tt was part of the Multnomah County Library book discussion group, and the library had many copies of it to sell.
The story follows Sarina, (who as I mentioned, seems to be based on the author), who is a young American girl living in Liberia with her diabetic mother, a father who is often away on business and a household of servants. Sarina is alone and has no friends, and her mother's diabetic attacks turn her irrational and cruel; all of which leaves Sarina quite miserable, which is described quite evocatively. She meets a Liberian boy, Boima, and strikes up a furtive friendship with him that makes her go outside of the confines of her mother's strict household. A fight comes up between her and her newfound friend, and they are separated. When she comes to see him again, sometime later, he is sick with Yellow Fever, and Sarina must attempt to save his life. She fails, and he dies, leaving her and her increasingly sick mother and troubled family to return to the United States. It is all very heavy material, and it is all told very well.
I do have one major problem with the book, and it may not be the author's fault. The book may be a description of events that have happened, or may have happened. But in a book dealing so much with themes of colonialism, it is very hard to avoid all sorts of subtexts. To paraphrase Gary Braunbeck, just because it happened, doesn't make it good writing. In the story, the American narrator is the one who is described as having both faults, and also growth beyond those faults. Some of those faults were rather bizarre to me---for example, the fight with her single friend mentioned above is because he steals some food from her family with the help of her family's maid. She is not mad at the theft, but rather that her maid knew about her secret friend, who she wanted to be all hers. In other words, the narrator feels possessive about her African friend, and seems to have very little understanding of the actual realities of their lives. The Liberians in the book are not shown as having growth or inner conflict, they are shown as being inscrutable and adding texture, and finally dying dramatically so that the narrator can learn a valuable lesson. It could be that this is not actually a result of a colonial mindset, but just the natural tale of a troubled, selfish girl perhaps becoming less selfish, but it still feels the wrong way to me.