The Dragons, The Giant, The Women: A Memoir By Wayetu Moore (Graywolf Press 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
There is a quote by G.K. Chesterton that goes, “Fairy tales are not told to tell children that dragons exist. Children already know the dragons exist. Fairy tales are told to tell that dragons can be killed.” But what happens when the dragons follow a child throughout their life? Such is the case with author Wayetu Moore in her memoir The Dragons, The Giant, The Women.
Moore’s memoir chronicles the author’s childhood during the first Liberian civil war, framing her memories in her adulthood pursuit to understand the circumstances of her family’s rescue and move to America. In escaping the conflict that tore apart her childhood home, Moore navigates her new surroundings as a woman of color in a predominantly white country. The various ‘dragons’ Moore faces off with in her coming of age juxtaposes with her internal struggle to understand her identity as a former citizen of Liberia, someone of African heritage, and an American woman. She also makes it a point that it has been through the various women in her life that she was able to combat the ‘dragons’ she has come up against, even allowing one of the final parts of her book to be told in first-person from her mother’s point of view.
The first part of Moore’s story focuses on the day that her family fled their village as rebel forces hunted alleged citizens loyal to the government in place. Spending days eluding both rebel gunman and starvation, Moore and her sisters quickly learn that courage and the choice to live through dark times can sustain the soul. This is demonstrated by Moore’s father, referred to as a pillar of strength or giant, who puts his life on the line more than once to not only safeguard his family but friends and neighbors as well. Arguably, his biggest act of courage comes when a mysterious rebel woman finds the Moore family and claims to have been sent by Moore’s mother to take them out of Liberia.
Flashforward to modern day narration of Moore’s time in America and her experiences as an immigrant finding her way in a new place. Although it takes her awhile to think of the United States as her home, Moore comes to recognize and understand the marginalization of African Americans. After becoming comfortable with talking to her siblings and therapist about the questions she still has about her past and how she can see all the different parts of herself, Moore decides to put her life and feelings down on paper. Her self-reflection and experiences with prejudice only solidify her resolve to be her most authentic self as a woman of color, while also she must reconcile her past with her family’s present. Her resolve eventually leads her to take a trip back to Liberia to stay with her parents, who at this point have relocated to a currently peaceful state.
This journey back to Liberia and a discussion with her mother makes up the final sections of the book, as leads the readers through her mother’s first-person narration of the events leading up to her family’s rescue. Moore’s mother recounts the struggles of being a Fulbright scholar in New York City, an opportunity she and Moore’s father thought essential to show their daughters that anything is possible through education. She comes to be pregnant during the first days of the Liberian civil war’s outbreak. The unknown circumstances of her family plague Mam’s state of mind until a family friend newly arrived in New York confirms that Moore’s husband and children are alive, albeit still trapped behind Liberia’s borders. That small amount of information helps Mam choose to travel back to Africa alone to try and get her family out. Residing in Bo Waterside along the Liberian border, Mam puts her trust in a fellow Vai Liberian named Jallah to come up with a way to retrieve her family. He, in turn, introduces her to Satta, a teenage militant woman who has smuggled people out of the war-torn country for a fee. Despite reservations about Satta’s allegiance to the Liberian government or the rebels, she puts her faith in her fellow countrymen to bring her family back to her. Like Helen of Troy or Egypt’s Cleopatra, Mam finds a likely comparison in Satta, sharing with Moore her profound optimism in viewing the unlikely rescuer as a heroine in Liberia’s struggle to save some of its people and lead them to safety.
With her mother’s insight and perspective, Moore concludes that the idea of losing her home, her community, and some of her roots during a time of turmoil does not have to end in tragedy. She finds this also applies to her various experiences in America. Instead, her pain helped her grow into the person she is today: someone who is confident, and realizes that not having the answers is not the end of the world. Moore has a beautiful passage at the end of her book that sums up her journey and that of all who suffer through war, both external and internal. “There are many stories of war to tell. You will hear them all. But remember among those who are lost, some made it through. Among the dragons there will always be heroes” (248). And that is all any human being can hope for, isn’t it? That the love, inner strength, and courage of human beings will be enough to battle the dragons, both physical and metaphorical. Moore’s fresh perspective and critiques on what it means to embrace one’s heritage resonates, most notably with the experience of people of color in the contemporary American “melting pot.” Her story is timeless, and a reflection of the historical and literary movements of the modern age.
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