Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
"The Invisible Girls: A Memoir" by Sarah Thebarge; Jericho Books; April 2013 (hardcover), April 2014 (paperback); 277 pp.
It all began with a wink. Sarah Thebarge was riding the train from the suburbs to downtown Portland when she noticed a pair of "sparkling brown eyes" peeking around the book she was reading. Thebarge soon realized the little girl sitting across the aisle from her was playing peekaboo with her; she responded by winking at the preschool-aged girl. This interaction prompted Thebarge to visit with the youngster's four sisters and mother who were refugees from Somalia.
"The Invisible Girls" is Thebarge's account of her encounter and subsequent relationship with Hadhi, the young Somali mother, and her daughters. It is also a narrative of Thebarge's battle with breast cancer. Thebarge, a pastor's daughter, had earned a master's degree in medical science from Yale School of Medicine and was studying journalism at Columbia University. She intended to finish school, get married and have a successful career as a medical writer. At age 27, her plans drastically changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thebarge nearly died from her cancer and, following her break-up with her steady boyfriend, she decided to move from the East Coast to Portland, Oregon to start fresh.
Her chance encounter with the Somali refugees on the train changed Thebarge's life. The loss of her health and her boyfriend had her questioning her faith in God and put her in a depressed state of mind. After finding out a little bit about Hadhi (she spoke very little English) and her situation, Thebarge decided she had to reach out to the family and try and help them navigate their new life in America.
"The Invisible Girls" alternates between Thebarge's earlier life and her outreach to Hadhi and her daughters. Growing up in a conservative Christian family, coping with her cancer diagnosis and treatment, and struggling with her faith are all chronicled by Thebarge in an interesting and honest manner. Equally compelling is her account of helping Hadhi and her girls settle into a country and culture with which they were quite unfamiliar. Thebarge does a masterful job of pointing out the many battles that immigrants encounter when they settle in a new land with limited language skills and resources.
The title for Thebarge's memoir is derived from a quote by Ralph Ellison, from his novel "Invisible Man": "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." Thebarge calls Hadhi's daughters "the invisible girls" because they are seemingly unseen by the neighborhood of strangers in which they live.
Thebarge is a talented writer who was willing to offer assistance to a family in need. Her acts of kindness and concern give us a beautiful and inspiring example of a modern-day Good Samaritan. Her book, however, is not just about how she came to the aid of an immigrant family. Thebarge makes it clear that by helping "the invisible girls" she regained purpose and meaning in her own life and grew stronger in her faith.
"The Invisible Girls" is a well-written, inspirational memoir. The paperback edition includes a reading group guide. Thebarge is donating the proceeds from the sale of the book to a college fund for the five Somali girls.