Full of action, danger, and suspense, Mack Little’s Shelter in a Hostile World is a richly detailed and evocative work of historical fiction that shines an unflinching light on dark episodes from the past. Moreover, it is populated by a well-developed cast of characters—both the good and the bad—whose thoughts, behaviors, and dialogue ring true for the period and capture the contemporary reader’s attention.
Barbados, 1651. Badu binds the defeated red-haired witch to the trunk of a kapok tree as the sounds of musket shots ring out in the distance. Together with Black John, the Obeahman, he awaits the arrival of the duppies, the spirits of children returned to take revenge on the white witch for their suffering. Briefly tearing his eyes away from the bloody spectacle, Badu realizes that one of the duppies has not come for the witch, it has come for him.
Obosi, 1628. Fifteen-year-old Badu, a skilled hunter and wrestling champion, hopes that his sporting prowess will be enough to convince his beloved Ekemma’s mother of his suitability as a husband despite his father’s lowly status in the village. However, the presence of ravens indicates that the ancestors are unhappy, and Badu is one of the few who know the dreadful reason for their displeasure.
To reveal the shocking links between these two events and trace the course of Badu’s life from his traditional childhood in Igboland to his traumatic adulthood as a rebellious slave on Barbados, Shelter in a Hostile World presents a dual timeline narrative that alternates between 1651 and 1628. In so doing, it elucidates the tragedies that befell Badu and ripped him from his homeland as well as the bravery and victories that later saw him rise up against oppression and seek freedom for his family.
Badu’s story is characterized by tremendous highs and appalling lows, and Mack Little does a great job of portraying the myriad emotions that accompany such circumstances. During the course of his life, Badu and those close to him encounter deeply distressing issues such as slavery, brutality, sexual assault, female genital mutilation, and betrayal, which means that the story is rarely a comfortable one to read, although it is certainly impactful and important.
Little has clearly done a great deal of research during the world-building for Shelter in a Hostile World, although the book wears that research lightly, always informing readers through entertaining rather than lecturing. The Obosi of 1628 and the Barbados of 1651 are powerfully evoked, and both the characters and situations seem troublingly realistic. The cultures and traditions of both places feature prominently, and the inclusion of certain spiritual practices and supernatural elements adds extra depth to the story.
A brief but deeply impactful read, there is scope for Shelter in a Hostile World to have been a novel rather than a novella. Still, Badu’s story is a powerful and gripping one, and there is plenty to appreciate in the book. It is often a painful and distressing read, but it is certainly worth the effort.