Book Review: Hope in a Ballet Shoe
'Hope in a Ballet Shoe’ is Michaela DePrince’s memoir. Her story has been subtitled: ‘Orphaned by war, saved by Ballet.’ Although Ballet is the continuous thread throughout her story, (from the age of 3 when she tore out a picture from a magazine of a ballerina at the orphanage in Sierra Leone), there is a back story which tells of love, hope and perseverance.
Orphaned at the age of 3 in Sierra Leone after her father was killed by rebels and her mother died of starvation, Michaela’s story of her life in an orphanage in Sierra Leone and then adopted by an American family at the age of 4, is told with raw honesty.
Even though this memoir is written retrospectively, Michaela has kept the integrity of a child’s voice in relaying her experiences and emotions.
A child’s coming of age story is told through the eyes of a child.
Michaela’s story begins as Mabinty Bangura and then as child #27 after she was abandoned at an orphanage and where she was harshly treated and tormented as a ‘devil child’ for a spotted skin condition.
Her experiences in war torn Sierra Leone as young a child and the horrors and atrocities she witnessed contain no sheen of sentimentality and no sugar coating. This was her life and those were the facts. It was mere survival.
‘I could tell how long they had been dead by the stink and the bugs that crawled on them.’
Michaela’s quick thinking wit coupled with her gritty and gutsy determination are what shine in this story. ‘Never giving up’ takes on another dimension. Her rise to international ballet star is testimony to this.
Her commentary on adjusting to life in America and her experiences of prejudices and bigotry are told plainly and factually, making the reader search within and confront personal default reactions.
‘My earliest experience of bigotry occurred in my own front yard…A neighbour walked over and said, “You girls will need to take your things and move your tea party out of sight of my property. I am trying to sell my house and someone is coming to look at it and I don’t want them to see the two of you.”
At the time I didn’t understand that there was racial prejudice in America, so I was confused about why the neighbour didn’t want to see us.
Are we ugly? Are we bad? Do we have grass stains on our clothes? Are we making too much noise?
Mia and I asked ourselves these questions and many more.'
Towards the end of the book, Michaela’s memoir becomes quite narrow and unbalanced in its focus and tends to rush through a list of all her accomplishments and accolades which takes away from the authenticity and holistic aspect of her life, struggle and story.
But for me, Michaela’s story is more than hope in a ballet shoe. It is about the hope of adoption, but even more, it is about the hope of interracial adoption. The supporting players in her story are the real stars – the fiercely selfless and protective love of her adoptive parents, Charles and Elaine DePrince, and the loyalty and support from her friend and adopted sister from the orphanage, Mia.
The reader is pushed to engage with harsh realities that defined Michaela’s early life at a level that will leave you emotionally drained.
Although a simple read, hers in not a simple story.
[Michaela was born in 1995 and is currently a dancer with the Dutch National Ballet Company]