Publication Date: 10/09/12
Author: Tim Crothers
As a non-fiction book set in Uganda, Queen of Katwe is a novel I would never normally have picked up. However, something in the story called to me and, having read the entire book in a matter of hours, I don’t regret that decision in the slightest.
Queen of Katwe details the life and experiences of Phiona Mutesi, the young, female, Ugandan chess player from the poorest of the slums who somehow managed to learn chess and become the best player in the country, despite having virtually no resources, or even enough food to eat.
There is something to be said for a novel that so thoroughly immerses you in a world you can barely conceive of, and make you feel like you lived it right alongside the protagonist. I have learned more about empathy and different life experiences from books than I ever have in class, or from other people. Books literally bring us all together, and breach the 9000 or so miles and insane socioeconomic differences between “us” and “them”. Queen of Katwe does this so well, that I was left feeling dazed after I put down the book; everything around me felt a little unreal and fantastical, as it would have to many of the residents of Katwe, where the book took place.
Queen of Katwe portrays a world of unimaginable poverty; where half of all teens are mothers, and where marrying an older man for food money is not only practiced, its often the only way to survive.
Raised in this world is young Phiona Mutesi, who, through a series of coincidences and altruism stretching across the world, is taught the game of chess in an effort to get her off the streets and learning about God. It is later discovered that she, to the disbelief of the Ugandan chess world, contains an enormous aptitude for strategy and the game, which provides her with a possible, but extremely difficult, way out of the slums.
This book struck a chord with me, particularly as a former competitive chess player.
I understood the love for the game, the practically infinite complexities, and the intense international competition. What I didn’t fully grasp, however, was how amazing it was that Phiona was able to get to where she was without resources or even a single player better than herself to practice with. And, on that note, how uneven and impossible her prospects of using this game to get out of her situation and to become a serious competitor are. The world is inherently unfair, and, after doing some research, learning that this prodigal girl, the best in her country, was rated the same as my middle school P.E. teacher and chess coach, and below one of the fifth graders on my team, I fully understood the crazy inequality she has been up against throughout this crazy journey. Yet, that’s part of what makes her story so fascinating and impressive and, cliched but true, insanely inspiring.
Although I have not yet seen the movie, I can say with absolute certainty that this is the book to pick up if you wish to be given some devastating perspective, or need a little inspiration in your life.
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