Cover image for When the ground is hard
When the ground is hard
Physical Description:
257 pages ; 22 cm
Reading Level:
830 Lexile.
At Swaziland's Keziah Christian Academy, where the wealth and color of one's father determines one's station, once-popular Adele bonds with poor Lottie over a book and a series of disasters.


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Edgar Award nominee stuns in this heartrending tale set in a Swaziland boarding school where two girls of different castes bond over a shared copy of Jane Eyre .

Adele Joubert loves being one of the popular girls at Keziah Christian Academy. She knows the upcoming semester at school is going to be great with her best friend Delia at her side. Then Delia dumps her for a new girl with more money, and Adele is forced to share a room with Lottie, the school pariah, who doesn't pray and defies teachers' orders.

But as they share a copy of Jane Eyre , Lottie's gruff exterior and honesty grow on Adele, and Lottie learns to be a little sweeter. Together, they take on bullies and protect each other from the vindictive and prejudiced teachers. Then a boy goes missing on campus and Adele and Lottie must rely on each other to solve the mystery and maybe learn the true meaning of friendship.

Author Notes

Malla Nunn is the author of Present Darknes which made the Davitt Awards 2015 shortlists in the category of Adult Novel. This title also made the Ned Kelly 2015 shortlists in the category of Best Novel.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

School Library Journal Review

Gr 7 Up--Being friends with wealthy Delia places Adele at the top of the pecking order at Keziah Christian Academy, a boarding school for mixed-race students in Swaziland during the time of the British Protectorate. Wealth and respectability rule, while gossip, food, and lackeys are commodities. Adele fits squarely in the class with wealth and no respectability. She returns junior year, mortified to find that she is placed in "dead Lorraine's room" with Lottie rather than Delia. "Lottie breaks the rules, she fights, she steals, she has one school uniform…. She's poor. Being with her will bring me down to her level." Yet stereotypes start shattering fast: Lottie steals food from Adele but uses most to trade for Mama Khumalo's traditional medicine to treat Adele's injured shoulder. She and Lottie are declared heroes and suspected as witches, becoming true friends as they take risks for each other and others, while devouring Jane Eyre. Much later, Adele finds out that Mama Khumalo is her aunt and begins to acknowledge and respect her Zulu side, which her mother has kept hidden. The accidents, lies, thefts, fights, secrets, sneaking, accusations, firefighting, dead bodies, and illicit rendezvous make for riveting reading in this taut novel chronicling Lottie's strength of character and Adele's transformation. Adele unravels class and racial discrimination, turns envy into self-compassion, and reconceives friendship in terms of sharing rather than one-upmanship, with ripple effects all around her. VERDICT Recommended for fans of Laura Amy Schlitz and Nnedi Okorafor, who will relish the storytelling, adventure, and spiritual depth.--Sara Lissa Paulson, City-As-School High School, New York City

Kirkus Review

A 16-year-old girl finds friendship and questions social hierarchies at her boarding school.After Adele Joubert is demoted from her favored place among the popular girls and sent to live in a room where a former student died, she begins to question the carefully structured hierarchy of her community. Within Keziah Christian Academy, a school for mixed-race students in 1965 Swaziland, a class system separates the rich from the poor, dictating who eats first at meals and who gets access to the best textbooks. Hair texturism, colorism, and the legitimacy of their parents' relationships also create divisions that Adele, who is of black and white ancestry, challenges with her budding friendship with her new roommate, Lottie Diamond, a poor outcast of Jewish, Scottish, and Zulu heritage. When classmate Darnell Parns, who is coded as neurodivergent, goes missing, Adele pushes boundaries aside to search for him and, in the process, learns more about her own complicated origins in the sweeping hills where Keziah is situated. With a critical emphasis on power dynamics among the multiracial students, the story moves quickly, focusing on Adele's interpersonal development. The gorgeous imagery sets the scene wonderfully, and there is mention of the religious and geographical colonization represented in the book, the hazy morals of the adults, and the relationships between black, white, and mixed-race citizens of Swaziland, but the narrative doesn't dig too deeply into these subjects.An engrossing narrative that gently but directly explores complex relationships. (Historical fiction. 14-adult) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

In Swaziland, wealth and privilege are tightly bound to race. As a mixed-race girl, Adele considers herself above the native Zulus, but her relatively privileged status is compromised by the fact that her white father lives with his real family in Johannesburg. Nevertheless, Adele has managed to find a place with the popular girls at her boarding school, until the arrival of a new girl slams her down the social hierarchy. Now Adele is stuck sharing an undesirable room with a decidedly unpopular girl, Lottie, best known for her fighting skills. The girls do share a love of reading, however, and bond over Jane Eyre. After weathering large and small traumas, they form a true friendship. Despite the predictable arc of the story, excellent writing and an evocative setting make this novel a standout. The racism that Adele and Lottie experience, where a small white minority holds disproportionate power, as is common in formerly colonized places, will feel both familiar and revelatory for many readers. And the transformative power of literature, demonstrated by two girls in Africa thrilling to the adventures of an impoverished girl in nineteenth-century England, also works its magic on readers of Adele's story.--Diane Colson Copyright 2019 Booklist



1 - Dying Days   It's Thursday night, so we walk down Live Long Street to the public telephone booth at the intersection of three footpaths called Left Path, Right Path, and Center Path. My flashlight beam bounces the length of the dirt road and picks out uneven ground and potholes, of which there are many. Mrs. Button, who lives in the pink house behind the mechanic's workshop, says that all streets should be paved like they are in England, but we're not in England--we are in the British protectorate of Swaziland, fenced in on all sides by Mozambique and the Republic of South Africa--so what does she know?   "Pick up the pace," Mother says in a fierce whisper. "We can't be late."   We hurry past cement-brick houses with cracks of light spilling from under locked front doors. Dogs bark in fenced yards. A curtain twitches, and a face peers at us through a space the width of a hand. The face belongs to Miriam Dube, the church minister's wife, who makes it her duty to spy on our weekly pilgrimage to the public phone box. It's dark, but I imagine that Mrs. Dube's expression is smug disapproval.   Mother holds her head high, like she is balancing the weight of an iron crown or suffering a garland of thorns. The neighbors are jealous, she says. Jealous gossips who frown on her high heels and her dresses straight from Johannesburg that show too much leg. They know we have carpet in the living room, she says. We also have Christmas bicycles with flashing chrome, in the backyard, and new Bata school shoes that still smell of the factory, under our beds.   They have concrete floors, and if they do have rugs, they are sure to be ugly when compared to the tufted field of purple flowers that blossom under our feet when we walk from the settee to the kitchen. That's why they hate us. That's why they don't stop to give us a lift when they see us walking at the side of the road, weighed down with shopping bags. The Manzini market is three miles from our house, Mother says. Three miles across dry fields pocked with snake and scorpion holes. A dangerous walk. A Christian would see our suffering and pick us up. But our neighbors--who call themselves Christians and stuff the church pews every Sunday--they drive by and leave us in their dust.   The phone booth appears in my flashlight beam: a rectangle of silver metal cemented into the red earth. Right Path, Left Path, and Center Path split off and disappear into vacant land covered in weeds. Bored children and drunks have left their initials and their boot prints on the glass walls, but, by some miracle, the interior light still gives off a dim glow, which attracts a circling cloud of white moths.   Mother feeds four silver coins into the change slot and dials a number. Her hands shake, and her breath comes short from walking the uneven road in high heels. As a rule, she never leaves our house in flat sandals or, Lord save us, the loose cotton slippers worn by women who value comfort over fashion sense. The coins drop, and she shapes her mouth into a smile.   "It's me," she says in a throaty voice that she reserves for the telephone.   The voice on the other end says something that makes her laugh, and she flashes me a triumphant glare. You see? her look says. I call every Thursday night to talk about what's happening with you, me, and your brother, Rian, and he answers just like that . . .   Mother wants me to know that, no matter what names the church ladies call her, her relationship with him is special. She has a good man she can rely on, and how many "loose women" and "tramps" can say the same thing? Zero. That's how many. Mother, I think, wants me to be proud of our weekly walk to the phone box.   I pick a twitching moth from my hair and blow it into the air. Its wings leave a fine white powder on my fingertips, and I brush it off onto the front of my skirt while Mother talks low and soft into the receiver.   "Of course. Adele is right here." She snaps her fingers to get my attention. "She's dying to talk to you."   I take the receiver from her and say, "Hello. . . . I'm fine. How are you?"   The voice tells me that he's tired but it's good to hear my voice and Mother's. Did the rest of the Christmas holidays go well? Am I ready for my second-to-last year of high school, and, good heavens, where does the time go? He pays the fees, so I tell him, "Yes, yes, I can't wait to go back to Keziah Christian Academy." It's January 21, three days before the term starts, but my bags are already packed. "It will be good to see my friends again." Phone time is precious. I can't waste a second of it by mentioning the bad food or the sharp edge of Mr. Newman's ruler that raps against my knuckles when I get a wrong answer or look at the mountains through the classroom window for too long. Mother says: Have some pride, girl. Nobody wants to hear your problems. Nurse your sorrows in private like the rest of us. She double-snaps her fingers to let me know that my time is up.   "See you soon, I hope." I surrender the receiver and step away to give her privacy. A cloud of moths beats a white circle around the phone box while others lie on the ground with broken wings.   I pull a strand of wild grass from the side of the road and chew the sweet end while Mother whispers promises into the telephone. Her right hip and shoulder press against the glass, and in that moment, surrounded by fields of rustling weeds and the low night sky, she seems small and completely alone. Just her and the moths dancing together in the pale light while darkness swallows everything around them.   Minutes pass. She hangs up and strides across the pockmarked road with her high heels clicking and her hips swinging to a tune that only she can hear. A loose curl bounces against her flushed right cheek, the way it always does after she's talked to him on the telephone. I can't tell if winding a strand of hair around her index finger is a nervous habit or a soothing motion. She throws her arms wide and hugs me tight. Air escapes my lungs with a hard whoosh.   "He's coming," she whispers into my ear.   "When?" I want dates and times. In one way or another, he is always on his way. He tells us he'll be in Mkuze, only five hours' drive from us. Or he has a meeting coming up in Golela, and it's a quick hop across the border from South Africa to us. Next, he's visiting Kruger Park with the other children and he might drop by for a few hours. Maybe he'll show up. Maybe he'll come this weekend . . .   Yes, I know "how things are." I am an expert in the unwritten rules that govern our family and the boundaries that can't be crossed or even mentioned out loud. I was born knowing. Mother reminds me of "how things are," on a regular basis so I'll remember that certain things in life can't be changed.   "Come." Mother grabs my arm, and we retrace our footsteps back in the direction of home. The vacant land around us rustles with sounds: secretive porcupines digging up roots, the soft pads of a house cat hunting small creatures through the bush, and a nightjar's escalating song. Mother hums "Oh Happy Day" under her breath. She used to sing in the church choir, and she has a lovely voice even now.   Car headlights swing off Center Path, and two bright beams illuminate the craggy length of Live Long Street. We automatically jump off the road and into the tall grass that grows thick along the edge. A truck speeds past, and we tuck our faces into the crooks of our arms to avoid being choked by dust. The white Ford pickup truck with a dented front fender belongs to Fergus Meadows, who lives in the house opposite ours and inherited his father's lumberyard five years ago.   A stone pings my leg, and I see that I'm cut. I wipe the blood away with white powdered fingers and step back onto the street. This is where Mother usually says, Hooligan! His father would die twice if he knew how spoiled that boy has turned out. He saw us walking in the dark. Don't you think he didn't. Two females. Alone. Yet he doesn't even slow down. Imagine!   But tonight is different. Instead of criticizing Fergus Meadows's manners, she flicks dust from her skirt and tucks her arm through mine. She hums and smiles at the half-moon in the sky. The neighborhood gossip and the sly glances thrown at her in the aisles of the new hypermarket on Louw Street can't touch her. She is bulletproof. She is armored by a simple fact:   He is coming. Excerpted from When the Ground Is Hard by Malla Nunn All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.