Set in Cote d’Ivoire, this novel brings to immediate life the horrors of cacao farming with child slaves. I’ll never feel the same about eating chocolate again.
Two years ago, 15 year-old Amadou and his 8 year old brother Seydou left their family’s drought-ridden farm in Mali to get work, but end up on a cacao farm in central Cote d’Ivoire where they are unpaid, routinely beaten, and have given up hope of ever getting home. When 13 year-old Khadija is brought to the farm, things change dramatically. For a start, she is a girl, the only girl they’ve ever seen at the farm, and she doesn’t seem to be from a Malian farm like the rest of the slaves. She immediately tries to escape, but is caught and becomes entangled in Amadou and Seydou’s lives. After brutal beatings, and much worse, the three attempt to escape, but even if they get away from the farm can they ever be safe again?
The bond between the two brothers, and then with Khadija, is gorgeously written. Arnadou’s unadorned but emotionally resonant narration shows his intense love and protectiveness for Seydou, that can also turn into the profound irritation that any sibling will recognize. Though simple farm boys – neither can read and they have little experience of urban or middle class environments – the brothers have a natural savvy, and their naivete is balanced out by their courage. When Khadija’s story finally emerges, it is a terrific way of blending facts about the chocolate trade into this fiction.
Using her experience of child labor, the author has crafted a gripping and shocking story that puts a face to a tragedy that is on the other side of the world, but which we are all complicit in. If we didn’t want cheap candy, or if we cared about where it came from, then the chain that she describes, in which farmers make next to nothing so don’t pay their workers, could not exist. She doesn’t spare us any of the brutality that her characters suffer, but manages to keep a flicker of hope for them.
The backmatter has a glossary and gives further sources to explore the issue of child exploitation.
As well as being a riveting story, Bitter Side is sure to capture the attention of teens who are invested in issues of social justice.
Reviewed from an ARC.