The Invisible Girls by Sarah Thebarge

May 20, 2016

For me, buying books gives me the same kind of thrill that buying shoes gives to other women. I love looking at the shiny cover and crisp pages and hearing the spine creak open for the first time.

But as much as I love buying new books, I have pretty strict criteria for what I'll buy: I have to have already read and loved it and think that at some point down the road I might want to reread it. (Or, it needs to look really pretty on my bookshelf.) (Or, it needs to be by a favorite and well-trusted author.)

Okay, so maybe my criteria isn't that strict (for more on this subject, watch Episode 2 of The Book Blab where Suzanne and I discuss our book buying habits). The point is, I have criteria.

When The Invisible Girls was selected for my book club in May, neither of the library systems I use had a single copy, so I was in a predicament. It wasn't a book I'd read, loved, or wanted to reread. It wasn't a gorgeous edition. And it wasn't by an author I'd ever read (or even heard of) before. I try really hard to read every book we pick for book club, but the fact that I was going to have to purchase this book in order to read it was a major deterrent (cheap-skate, right here).

Luckily, my friend, Jen (who's now famous on this blog), came to my rescue and bought the book herself, read it, and then loaned it to me, so I avoided having to agonize over my book-buying standards.

It's a beautiful fall afternoon in 2012 when Sarah Thebarge starts playing peekaboo with a little Somali girl on the train into downtown Portland. She's with her sister and mother, and during the train ride, Sarah finds out they are refugees, there are three more daughters at school, their father has left them, and this woman has no family support in this vast city. Sarah is drawn to help and gets the woman's address before they part ways.

But of course, meeting a Somali family on a train is far from the beginning of Sarah's story. So she backs up to her childhood and young adulthood, where the reader learns that she grew up in a fundamentalist culture with very clear boundaries between male and female roles and a harsh view of God. In spite of that, she had big dreams and went to college and eventually earned an advanced degree at Yale and began course work on another. But then, at the young age of 27, she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, and everything changed.

Sarah tells her story by moving back and forth between her past (focusing specifically on her years with breast cancer) and the present (with the Somali family). As you can imagine, her cancer diagnosis completely rocked her faith and her relationship with God. She moved to Portland for a fresh start following her treatments, and as she reached outside herself to help this struggling family, her heart gradually healed and her faith was renewed.

When Sarah goes to the family's home for the first time, she is shocked by what she finds: the rooms are empty of furniture except for a couple of mattresses; the girls are all sitting on the dining room floor, dipping moldy bread in ketchup; the whole apartment is dark and dismal. During subsequent visits, she discovers even more oversights in their basic necessities: no soap, no toilet paper, no cleaning supplies of any kind; the apartment is freezing because they don't know how to use the thermostat; they've been burning all their food because Hadhi has been been setting the oven to broil.

So it's little things like that (which, when you add them all up, turn into really, really big things) that Sarah begins to help them with. At times, she's overwhelmed, and I don't blame her. I'm a little bit of a germaphobe, and, as much as I don't like to admit it, I don't know if I would have been able to get past the unsanitary conditions and continue to go back for more.

But Sarah did, and I really respected and admired her for that. I was also impressed with the way she balanced giving and teaching and encouraging (and even, stepping back). She could have walked in on that first day and thought, We've got to do something fast (like, buy soap!), but she helped very carefully, always making sure not to undermine Hadhi's authority and trying to do things that would also foster independence rather than dependence. She was a mentor in every sense of the word, and that is exactly what this family needed--just someone to be on their side in a country where they were essentially invisible.

Even when things were hard and she felt overwhelmed, Sarah looked forward to going over the family's apartment every few days because she felt such an instant connection with each of the girls, especially the four-year-old, Lelo, who was lively and rambunctious and always full of mischief. Early on in their relationship, she told them she loved them, and I really liked this perspective she shared,
"Past experience had made me wary of saying I Love You to people. I learned the hard way that those words complicate most relationships, and leave you open to more rejection and more pain than if you left them unsaid. But saying I Love You to these girls wasn't like accidentally spilling a fine wine; it was like pouring water on parched ground. They seemed as starved for attention and affection as they were for food."
I think anytime you have an experience helping someone and then write a book about it, you run the risk of it seeming a little self-serving (were you helping because you wanted to or because you thought it would make a great book deal?), but I never got that impression with this book. I think this was due, in part, to Sarah's own struggles and trials (she never comes across as having a perfect life), but also because, in the end, you see how much this refugee family helps Sarah in her own healing process.

But on top of that, any money that Sarah makes on this book goes into a college fund for these five sisters (of course, after I learned that, then I felt really good about my stinginess), and I think that will be such a gift.

About four months into Sarah's friendship with Hadhi and her girls, Hadhi gets very sick and has to be taken to the ER. It is hard for her to communicate her symptoms, and so they get a Somali interpreter on the phone to help. The interpreter introduces herself, "Hi, my name is Lelo." Sarah and Hadhi both perk up at the name because it is the same as Hadhi's fourth daughter (the mischievous one). In that moment, Sarah catches a glimpse at a future for these girls--a future that is far from fear or insecurity or deprivation. It gives her hope, and it's at that point that she realizes she wants to do anything she can to make that future a reality.

I really, really enjoyed this book, and it made me want to overcome some of my own fears and inhibitions and look for ways to help people in similar circumstances in my own community.

Content note: a little bit of language, mostly said by the girls who picked it up at school and didn't realize they were saying anything bad.

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