The Fattening Hut by Pat Lowery Collins

fattening hutReading level: ~7
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Helen doesn’t want to stay in the fattening hut. She’s told her mother that she’s too young, not ready for it. Why must she marry so soon? She doesn’t want to gorge on rich meals for months—until she is round and heavy, like a good bride should be. Just like her mother and sister before her, just like all the women of her tribe. When she finds out the terrible secret the fattening hut harbors, she becomes even more confused and defiant. Lonely, scared, and feeling hemmed in by family, by culture, and by tradition, Helen fights for the chance to be educated, young, and free.

The Fattening Hut is  a long, free-form poem. Quite honestly, I would have preferred prose, as I don’t see the point of free-form poetry. The line breaks have always seemed arbitrary. The author actually explains at the end that she originally started writing the story in prose but changed to free-form poem, which she felt was a better fit.

The author’s note at the end of the book (at least in my ARC copy) is helpful in explaining a few things, namely that the culture and location in this story is a conglomerate of real places and the author’s imagination. She took aspects of Nigerian culture and rituals and placed her characters on a fictional island that might as well be a real place. I appreciated Collins making up the location, (parts of) rituals, and religion because you get into repatriation issues when authors write about cultures not their own.

Right from the beginning, The Fattening Hut is interesting because girls are fattened before being married because being skinny is not attractive or healthy. Helen, our narrator, isn’t buying it and questions the rules of the culture, such as geting fat, having to marry someone she doesn’t love, being submissive to men… When she learns about the female genital cutting ceremony, she flees the fattening hut and seeks a safe haven, which is currently happening (in reality) in places around Africa and possibly in other places in which female cutting is performed.

The suggested reader interest age, according to Scholastic, is 9th grade. There is absolutely nothing graphic in this story, but the concept itself is uncomfortable to think about and discuss for many of us. Due to the content, then, I suggest this book for high school readers, although I have no qualms about sticking it in a middle school library with a pg-13 rating sticker. Also, apparently Scholastic can’t level this book, possibly because it’s a poem. Anyway, my best guess for a reading level is 7th grade because it’s going to take a strong reader to understand the vocabulary and the writing that implies the culture’s secrets more than saying so directly.

It isn’t ELL-friendly because of complex vocabulary and syntax. There are words for plants and animals that I wasn’t familiar with but may be common knowledge to kiddos from parts of Africa or surrounding areas. The syntax is…not sure how to explain this…er…complex. The writing is beautiful and descriptive, but it’s a bit tricky.

I didn’t love this book, but I did like it enough to rate it 3 out of 5 stars on goodreads.  I was rooting for Helen to follow her heart, which told her to rebel against her culture. The plot was just slow moving. Something else that irked me was that the culture in which Helen lives is portrayed so negatively: female genital cutting, male dominance, forced arrange marriage… While these may be very real parts of cultures today, the message is loud and clear that all of these aspects are wrong. Coming from a white author not from Africa, I was a little uncomfortable. Helen’s culture is almost made out to be barbaric, and I failed to see many redeeming qualities. I don’t want students to read this story and generalize that all cultures that practice FGC or, worse, all cultures in Africa, are this way and are terrible places for women.

The Fattening Hut is my nineteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

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