In this Teen Novel, Swaziland in the 1960s Feels a Lot Like America Today
The rules are clear. The all-white “European” students get the best. The mixed-race ones, like 16-year-old Adele, don’t.
Even so, Adele has secured a top spot in the complex hierarchy at Keziah boarding school, in the heart of southern Africa’s Swaziland. Though her white “sometimes” father has another family, he’s still well-off enough to pay full tuition. She’s worked hard to earn a place amongst the most popular girls, watching her manners and offering the proper gifts of boarding-school valuables like tinned peaches and strawberry biscuits.
But when Adele boards the bus for her next term, she discovers that Sandi, whose father owns the new hypermarket, now occupies her usual seat next to queen bee Delia. “I’ve been dropped for a rich girl with a silver necklace and a bag of peppermint chews,” Adele laments, before trudging back to third class next to Lottie Diamond.
“Lottie is exactly the kind of girl that Mother, because of her own impoverished background, wants me to be polite to. On the other hand, Delia is the top-shelf girl that Mother, because of her impoverished background, wants me to be fast friends with,” she muses. “I’m supposed to be an improved version of Mother: kind to the poor students but accepted by the sorts of snotty girls who once spurned her.”
Malla Nunn has set When the Ground is Hard several decades ago, in a school just like the one Nunn attended as a Swazi teen. On one level, “Ground” is an absorbing story that shows how anxious rule-follower Adele and fearless Lottie eventually find a common bond through their shared hatred of societal rules.
Yet as they join forces to call out assorted injustices at Keziah, there are larger issues at hand than the mean-girl hierarchy. The prisms of money and race that filter their world have clear parallels to today’s political climate, which makes When the Ground is Hard a cautionary tale as well as a coming-of-age one.
Money and race dictate plenty at Keziah. The school metes out meals according to tuition. Full-paying students get full plates, scholarship students get less. Matron’s random health inspections focus more frequently on the poorer students. “We are checked at random, but the poor girls get extra attention because they are in imminent danger of falling into bad habits,” Adele tells us early on.
While the duo navigates several adventures through the course of the book, the fate of Darnell is among the most compelling. Most students shun the 15-year-old learning-disabled boy, but Lottie is kind to him, gently reminding him of the rules he needs to follow. When Darnell disappears, Lottie enlists Adele’s help (and privilege, as a wealthier student) to find him.
Nunn, who penned several mysteries for adults before making her young-adult debut with When the Ground is Hard, offers a master class in writing that balances potency and simplicity. When a white boy spits at Lottie and Adele, the girls throw stones at him. A white American teacher chastises them, encouraging them to turn the other cheek rather than retaliate. Adele stares at her. Lottie turns her palms up, ready for a whipping, and says, “Punish us, so that next time we will be kinder and gentler to white boys who hate us.”
It’s a ridiculous and horrifying statement, and one that might be easier to dismiss as a reality of past decades in far-away countries if America weren’t still struggling with inequalities. When the Ground is Hard may be historical fiction, but its themes are as modern as ever.
(Putnam/Penguin, June 4, 2019)