King’s property, king’s property, everything is correct. Elimane, Khoudiemata, Ndevui, Kpindi and Namsa—a family born of necessity, rather than blood—whistle this phrase to signal to one another, warning against potential invaders in their postcolonial African nest. Living by their wits, the group manages to eke out something approaching survival in the hulk of an abandoned airplane, a self-contained minisociety at the fringes of a much larger, glaringly dysfunctional and indiscriminately hostile one.
In Little Family, Ishmael Beah, author of the bestselling A Long Way Gone, draws a vivid, disturbing and yet life-affirming picture of five young people who band together when abandoned by their families, their government and even society itself. Fortune, they discover early on, favors the prepared. First, Elimane hooks up with a mysterious figure he calls William Handkerchief, who employs the group to render certain confidential—and possibly illegal—services. Not long thereafter, Khoudiemata is able to deploy a combination of beauty and backbone that lands her among the unnamed country’s smart set.
At one juncture, a former professor and government official turned rabble-rouser delivers an impassioned speech with sentiments shared by many in former colonies: “Look at all you fools, including me, celebrating an Independence Day we didn’t fight for. Some foreigners who didn’t own this land decided that today you were free in a land where your ancestors lived before they arrived. This is why we are not free, because we have allowed someone else to decide when and how we should be free.” With such a universal message, Little Family could easily have been set in Mumbai or Hong Kong, London or New York City—any place where untold riches exist cheek-by-jowl with soul-crushing poverty.
Sometimes, as both Elimane and Khoudiemata discover, all it takes is a chance meeting and the skill to deliver an essential commodity at exactly the right time to propel someone from the outside into the inner circle. And for myriad reasons, it might not be easy—or even possible—to ever go back. But every bird is forced at some point to abandon its nest, and people are much the same—even if, unlike the song, everything is not correct.