Cathy Liggett's latest book is a departure from her romance novels, but it's one that stems from an actual experience in her own life. Several years ago, Liggett traveled to South Africa on a short-term mission trip with Jennifer Davis, the founder of a nonprofit called Beaded Hope, which helps support South African women by selling their beadwork in the United States. The women and their work inspired Liggett to write this fictionalized account of the inception of the organization.
The book opens with glimpses into the everyday lives of three women, and the teenage daughter of one of the women, who live in Ohio. Each is facing a conflict in her life, and each decides to sign up for a two-week mission trip to South Africa for reasons that have little to do with mission work. Cassandra intends to turn in the story of her broadcast career when she returns to the states; Gabby hopes to escape the heartache that has turned her life upside-down; and Heidi and her daughter, Katie, each still grieving over the loss of husband and father, Jeff, are facing a future filled with unforeseen challenges that threaten to overwhelm their lives even further.
This is the foursome that will work as a team once they hit the ground in South Africa and travel to a remote village where AIDS has ravaged the women and children. The men --- the husbands and fathers --- are long gone, either having already succumbed to AIDS or having abandoned the families they infected. It's a squalid area where so many women have died that the eldest of their surviving children become the head of the household, no matter how young they are. And it's an area where so many children have died that their surviving mothers become surrogate mothers to other women's children. It's family like you've never heard of before, the women and children living in unimaginable poverty in structures that barely merit description as "shelter."
The four women share a unit in a church compound, where the matriarch of the community, Mama Penny, welcomes them and becomes their guide for the next two weeks. She introduces them to an AIDS-infected woman named Jaleela, who has come up with a way to help her community: selling beaded jewelry to buyers in the U.S. Beadwork is a long tradition among the women of the area, and she is hopeful that their jewelry will appeal to Americans. The four American women have no doubt that the beautiful jewelry will sell in the U.S., and they begin the process of setting the women up in business.
Meanwhile, each of the American women is confronted with her own internal struggles. Eventually, those struggles are unmasked as each one becomes vulnerable to the others, sharing their problems to varying degrees of openness and intimacy. The impact of the trip on their lives proves to be immeasurable --- first, because of the compelling stories of the African women, and second, because of the bond they forge amid the difficult circumstances of their lives.
Through BEADED HOPE, Liggett offers readers a rare view into the desperate experiences of AIDS victims, but it's also a look into a world that never allows hope to die completely. Despite the destitution, the grief and the suffering, there's a sense of hope in Liggett's depiction of the villagers that rings true. Choosing to offer a fictionalized account of the women of Beaded Hope was truly a masterful stroke on the author's part; readers of her novels will likely gravitate to this one, and they'll be richly rewarded when they do. It's a book well worth reading, for its insight into a real-life tragedy as well as its entertainment value. And even better, 20 percent of the proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to Beaded Hope (www.beadedhope.com).
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on March 1, 2010