Susan reads: The Queen of Katwe

Wow – two books on chess in the same year?  Odd, yes, but this book fed my brain AND my sense of social welfare at the same time. In The Queen of Katwe, Phiona Mutesi is the poorest of the poor – poorer than the Indian children of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, poor as only the poor of war-torn Uganda can be, yet through her own uneducated analytical mind, she rises above everything as a sort of chess savant, traveling to Siberia to compete on a world level – at the age of 15, a girl who has never even seen a flush toilet, who does not even know when her birthday is.

Much of the book is taken up not with Phiona – how I wish more of the book focused on her, her thoughts, etc. – but with everyone around her, and just how the circumstances formed for her to shoot her star so incredibly high. Throughout, Phiona is a shadowy figure, almost a mentally disabled girl who for a few brief moments is able to see and understand clearly, and then is sent back down to the depths of her dull & hopeless life. Is it crueler to leave her mindless in the mud of the streets or to show her the glory of the rest of the world, and then send her back to nothing? I’m not sure. It’s a real “Flowers for Algernon” conundrum.

And I can’t help but wonder what the author could/did do for some of these people – you see them trying to teach chess with boards missing pieces, so crudely carved you can’t always tell a knight from a rook – did you buy them a few chess sets, when what to us is $10 and to them is a year’s salary? Did you donate so the club could continue to feed the starving children who come there to learn? I myself could not look upon such conditions without trying to help, but the author is silent as to how he himself was moved by the situation. A good book, an incredible story, but I wanted so much more, both for me and for Phiona.