cover image The Song of the Molimo

The Song of the Molimo

Jane Cutler. Farrar Straus Giroux, $16 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-374-37141-8

Set during the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, this novel combines a highly original premise with meticulous research but proves uneven. The story begins in Africa, where illegal slave traders capture Ota Benga, a Pygmy, and sell him to an American explorer for display in the Fair. Meanwhile, Harry, a 12-year-old from Kansas, pays a six-week visit to his St. Louis relatives. Through his anthropologist cousin, Frederick, Harry slowly forges a friendship with Ota, disguising him for an outing, laughing at his comic imitations and listening to his horn, the molimo. Basing her work on actual events, Cutler (My Wartime Summers) not only conveys the bustle and thrill of the Fair but also exposes the prejudices masquerading as science. For example, when a pompous anthropologist informs a packed house that larger skull size indicates greater intelligence, he compares Ota's head measurements to those of a man Harry knows as a blockhead and a thief. The outrageous practice of putting people of other races on exhibit and the unearthing of outdated theses produce their greatest impact here when shown through the characters' experience and observations; however, they are sometimes filtered through contrived and didactic dialogue. Historic figures pepper the novel, and one, the pioneering woman photojournalist Jessie Tarbox Beals, emerges as a central character. Readers will enjoy witnessing Harry gain respect for another culture as he learns to question his own. But though the story is often amusing and sensitively told, the relationship between Harry and Ota is not built strongly enough to serve its pivotal function. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)