I love adoption memoirs and I love ballet memoirs, so it’s no surprise that I loved this book. I’m just going to go ahead and spoil everything that happens.
Mabinty was born to loving parents in Sierra Leone who treated her like a treasure even when other family members said it was a disappointment that she was a girl. They taught her to read at a very young age because their dream for her was an education. If you’re like me, you look at the photos first, and I was puzzled when I read that Mabinty was an only child, because there were lots of photos of her and her sister, who share a strong resemblance. Then Mabinty’s father was killed at his job in a diamond mine by rebels during the civil war, and her mother died of Lassa fever. Mabinty’s uncle took her to an orphanage, a real shady establishment, but at least there she was spared from starvation and being killed by rebel soldiers. She made a best friend there, also named Mabinty. (The children were ranked based by popularity and adoptability, so the two girls were known as Mabinty 26 and Mabinty 27, and referred to only by their numbers. Unfortunately there were only 27 children in the orphanage, so they were at the bottom of the pecking order and got the smallest amounts of food.) At one point our Mabinty finds an old copy of Dance Magazine. When she sees the ballerina on the cover, she knows that’s what she wants to be too. She was clearly born to dance ballet. All of this early material is told from a very authentic child’s POV. The bad people are fairy tale evil. Except it’s all real.
The whole orphanage had to evacuate to a refugee camp in Guinea. All the other children were given “family books” prepared by their American adoptive families, except our Mabinty. She is told no one wanted to adopt her because of her skin condition, vitiligo. So she reads her best friend Mabinty’s book, trying to live vicariously, but she’s heartbroken that not only was she not chosen, she’s going to lose her best friend too. But at the last moment she is told there is a family for her after all. Her best friend Mabinty’s new family has decided to adopt her too! So that was a fun surprise. And the mystery of the photos is solved.
I was even more surprised on the next page when we learn that her new parents had three much older living sons by birth as well as two sons by adoption named Michael and Cubby who had died of AIDS some years before. I realized I knew exactly who her new family was! I read her mother’s memoir/exposé Cry Bloody Murder in 1999. I had actually wanted to read it again, but couldn’t remember the name or the author’s name.
Having two children with the same name doesn’t work out, so the girls are given new American names, Michaela and Mia. They adjust to a very different life in the USA and the girls begin ballet lessons as soon as humanly possible. (Mia likes ballet okay, but she prefers playing the piano and oboe.) Then as the family is planning a trip to Scotland, the mom finds out about another girl from the same orphanage whose adoption has disrupted. “Can we take her?” she asks. “Of course not!” says the dad. “Do you know how complicated it would be to take someone else’s child to a foreign country?” “I mean can we adopt her?” the mom persists. The dad laughs. “I thought you wanted to take her to Scotland. Of course we can adopt her!” So Michaela gains another sister. During the course of the book, she gets three more sisters, but says almost nothing about them. I actually think that’s very smart. There was probably a lot of drama in their lives, and Michaela (and her mom who is the co-author) decided to keep that to themselves and give the sisters their privacy. There was definitely a focus in this book on keeping things positive.
However... I had a bad feeling that someone was going to die. I thought it was going to be sister Mia, but it turned out to be brother Teddy, who like his brothers was a hemophiliac and had contracted HIV/AIDS via contaminated blood-clotting product. I felt incredibly sympathy for this family, and I also admire their resilience. If even one of the things that happened to them happened to me, I would slink through the rest of my life barely getting by until at last I gratefully toppled into my own grave. But these people have dreams, drive, ambition, and a non-stop desire to help others. Which brings us to the ballet portion of this book.
I loved reading about Michaela’s dance studies and the competitions she was in and the different roles she learned. I would have liked even more about that but I know it’s hard to please everyone. I loved the part where she met Arthur Mitchell, and he gave her special coaching and truly terrible nicknames. And I loved when the family met Albert Evans at the New York State Theater but Michaela was afraid of him because he was wearing a camouflage pattern like the rebel soldiers in Sierra Leone. I loved when she found out who was the dancer on the magazine cover who had inspired her so much as a child (Magali Messac.) But it was sad reading about the institutionalized racism of the ballet world. I mean, basically, she encountered prejudiced assumptions everywhere (people constantly believe her to be her parents’ home health care aide) but it was particularly pernicious in the ballet setting. It seems as though nothing has changed much since Arthur Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem; it’s still incredibly unusual to find African-American ballerinas and there are as many bigoted stereotypes as ever.
Both writers, Micheala and her mother, were very modest about themselves. They had numerous opportunities to brag, but didn’t. I was very impressed at how Michaela’s mother could not only braid in hair extensions but could also create and dye a tutu from scratch. I’m glad that I had an opportunity to see Michaela dance with DTH during her year there, as I doubt I will ever see the company she is in now, the Dutch National Ballet.
Theme song: Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky
Book design: I can’t discuss this topic anymore, but I can pass on the reaction of the librarian as I checked out this book. I have taken hundreds of books out of that library, some extremely bizarre, but I only ever receive comments on books about ballet. The librarian said, “What a beautiful cover!” and stared at it.