The Turn-around Bird tells the story of Aimée Thurman and her beloved and frustrating sister Zoe, two sisters from Madison, Wisconsin, who travel to Timbuktu, Mali, on a research trip with their father, a professor of African history. Within the first few days of their arrival, they meet Ifrit a djinn (genie) who transports them back in time to 1329, the height of the Mali Empire shortly after Mansa Musa’s return across the desert from the hajj (pilgrimage) in Mecca.
Though initially skeptical of their visit to ”a dusty West African country,” once Aimée and Zoe arrive in Timbuktu in 1329, they encounter the daughter of a prominent lawyer from Egypt, princes from Gao (further east in the Empire) with shady motives, students studying at Timbuktu’s Sankore University, and members of Mansa Musa’s royal household, and befriend the Royal Goldsmith’s daughter. Through Aimée and Zoe’s increasingly curious eyes, we see Timbuktu as a lively hub of learning, politics, and commerce. We are introduced to people whose identities and livelihoods would be largely unfamiliar to 21st century Americans (though much less so to 21st century Malians)–griots, marabouts, blacksmiths, healers, goldsmiths, imams, sufis, qadis–and begin to understand the intricacies of the social relationships between them. The story reaches its climax as Aimée and Zoe navigate these relationships in an attempt to rescue their father, who has been accused of raping a married woman, from the threat of death.
This is Lucinda Wingard’s first book. Though she has never traveled to Mali, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in northern Nigeria in the 1960s and a longtime classroom teacher, and The Turn-around Bird is lively, thoughtfully researched, and well-produced. Wingard nicely weaves themes relevant to young adults’ emotional coming of age– sibling rivalry, coping with divorce, popularity, identity and self-discovery–into an epic adventure story that raises intellectual questions important for teens to consider.
We see Aimée and Zoe confronting what it means to be civilized, the relationship between education, privilege, responsibility, and reputation, and issues surrounding racism and slavery. Aimée, for example, refines her definition of slavery, recognizing that in 14th century Timbuktu, it was horribly cruel, accepted with a shrug by both owners and owned, and [at times] offered a ticket to wealth that […] birth did not.” Addressing these topics, Wingard is careful not to strike a moralizing tone, pointing out both similarities and differences in how people have conceived of these topics across cultures and centuries.
Historians have pieced together the history of 14th century Timbuktu through three primary Arabic texts–those of historian Ibn Khaldun, the traveler Ibn Battuta, and the geographer al-‘Umari–as well as oral traditions recounted by West African griots throughout the 20th century. Much is left to speculation and debate–for example, about whether Niani was indeed the capital city of the Mali Empire under Mansa Musa, or the precise role of religious notables in city administration. Though Wingard does not introduce these debates, she does make it clear that while Timbuktu was an important urban center, it existed within a larger regional network, and its denizens had connections not only north and eastward through the desert, but also south and westward towards the heart of the Mali Empire.
The Turn-around Bird is thus enjoyable for a general audience, but could also work especially well in an early high school world history classroom. It includes a glossary of unfamiliar terms, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading (though, extra-ambitious readers may also want to examine Elias Saad’s Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables, 1400-1900), as well as an author’s note that clarifies her writing process–the weaving together of research, her own experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer, and the kinds of imaginative leaps she takes that make The Turn-around Bird so satisfying, and nicely complementary to textbook and other historical accounts.
Published in Africa Access Review (March 24, 2013)
Copyright 2013 Africa Access
Reviewed by: Kristin Lehner, George Mason University