What a good, well-crafted read THE INVISIBLE GIRLS is. Here are two stories deftly wound around each other, both drawing the reader further up and further in. The opening chapter introduces the most recent setting: On a transit train in Portland, Oregon, Sarah Thebarge happens upon a desperately poor Somali Muslim woman whose preschool daughters gravitate toward Thebarge, even snuggling onto her lap. What prompted Thebarge to ask Hadhi for the family’s address? Why did she knock on the door of their barren apartment a few days later?
After this brief introduction, Thebarge backtracks, filling in the details of her earlier life --- childhood scenes from a conservative parsonage, where she absorbed stories of a fearsome God whose mercy remained veiled to her psyche, where she dreamed of a career not confined by the community’s gender-based expectations. Though she doesn’t name it until toward the end of the book, in some ways she grew up as an “invisible girl.”
"What a good, well-crafted read THE INVISIBLE GIRLS is. Here are two stories deftly wound around each other, both drawing the reader further up and further in."
As a young adult, with a bachelor’s degree from a Christian liberal arts college, a physician’s assistant degree from Yale, and credits toward a journalism degree from Columbia --- her future well mapped, anticipating marriage to her beloved --- her life spiraled downward. A double mastectomy --- a perceived loss of sexuality --- complicated by a cancer recurrence and sepsis “left her physically, financially, and spiritually depleted” and quite alone in the world, though her parents should take a bow for their stalwart support. Thebarge’s writing is lyrical and disarmingly honest at every turn. Her being a single woman feeds into the story. After her first surgery, did a small church really promise dinners every night for two weeks --- but then no one delivered or even called with an excuse for the no-show? Did her soul mate say he just couldn’t take it anymore and walk out?
Physically compromised, emotionally strung out, angry, and feeling abandoned by God, the church and friends, she herself “ran away,” from New Haven to Portland --- a city chosen because a few college friends lived there --- to start a new life. Two years later, having stabilized enough to contemplate and reject a good job back East, Thebarge met Hadhi and her five daughters, aged nine to three, subsisting in empty rooms: two mattresses, one blanket, a TV from Goodwill.
The stories of a refugee family’s attempts to assimilate into modern American culture are both humorous and heartbreaking. There’s an oven and thermostat in the apartment. But what’s their use? Soap, toothpaste, silverware? Thebarge introduces the mother and children to life skills and basic conveniences we so take for granted. She introduces her readers to a piece of urban America that we want to ignore. She addresses the desperate need she sees, involving her church’s outreach ministry, governmental social services, and a circle of friends to bring order out of chaos and hope to the hopeless. In living out her rekindled faith, she draws Hadhi’s family up out of their “invisible” status among us, reminding them --- and us --- of being in the presence of “the God Who Sees.”
I’m doing a pathetically poor job of relating the flavor of this wonderful book. Just read it. For the pathos. For the humor. For the turn of phrase. For the inspiration to spur involvement not on a distant mission field but in one’s own neighborhood.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on July 19, 2013