All our names

All our names by Dinaw Mengestu (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

This is one of those novels with two parallel plot lines that eventually converge (like All the Light We Cannot See which I recently reviewed). One plot line involves the main character (an African man in his late twenties) and his friend during their involvement in Uganda’s civil wars in the 1970s. The other plot line follows the same man, slightly older, during the first year he spends in the United States, developing a romantic relationship with a woman social worker in the Midwest. This was a time when bi-racial couples were not completely accepted. Both stories are told simply, in the manner of a journalist or social worker who frequently witnesses tragic and horrific events: people who strive to stay calm while not suppressing their humanity entirely.

While writing this review I watched two neighborhood boys play soldier, running through my backyard wearing camouflage shirts and carrying plastic rifles. They have played this game before, and it bothers me every time. Yes, I know little boys have always loved to play war, and it’s better for them to run around outside than play video games. But I don’t think it’s harmless. I think they’re practicing for an all too real future, either as soldiers sent overseas by the U.S. Army to interfere in other nations’ civil wars, or as police officers or National Guardsmen in an increasingly militarized “land of the free.”

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