Despite the praise Fleur Beale’s YA novel, I Am Not Esther has received (Kirkus called it “an engaging and credible survival story of an unusual nature”), I wasn’t particularly moved or invested. Perhaps the story was just geared a little young for me or perhaps I just felt that the story – which was intriguing, for sure – was just a tad superficial.
Kirby is 14 and has spent much of her young life looking after her “dizzy flake of a mother” mother. Just after Christmas, Kirby’s mum announces that they are leaving Auckland (New Zealand) and moving to Wellington. Everything happens so suddenly, Kirby doesn’t even have an opportunity to process this before everything changes again. Kirby’s mum announces that she is going to do missionary work in Africa and Kirby is going to be staying with relatives she didn’t even know she had. Worse, her uncle and aunt and cousins are members of a strict religious sect.
They’re religious. They all are. They’re called Children of the Faith. They threw me out when I was sixteen because I…because…
So, lickety-split Kirby is dropped off at her Uncle Caleb and Aunt Naomi’s house and expected to adapt to an alien and strict way of life. There is no radio or television. The family prays and works. Punishment for disobedience, Kirby learns quickly, involves long hours on your knees or seclusion in a windowless room learning bible verses. Uncle Caleb changes Kirby’s name to Esther.
Caleb and Naomi aren’t horrible people; they just believe in something Kirby doesn’t. And, clearly, neither does her mum. So one of the problems with the book is why Kirby wasn’t dropped off with to live with the brother (she has five of them and three sisters) who also left the church. It seems non-sensical to me that she would leave her daughter to a life that she had trouble living herself.
Kirby adapts as best she can; what choice does she have? She never even hears from her mother, it’s like she drops off the face of the earth. She finds a friend in her older cousin, Daniel, and the guidance counsellor at school. When the resolution comes it isn’t all that compelling because it’s not like Kirby’s life was ever in danger. And although Kirby is a likeable character, the book itself was only just okay. That said, I suspect younger readers would really enjoy it.