Makena longs to be a mountain guide like her father and her dream is to climb Mount Kenya with him. Her most treasured possession is a jar of melted snow from a glacier her beloved Baba had brought back for her. On her first trek with him she is spooked by the cackle of hyenas at night but her feeling of unease is mitigated when she spots a beautiful bat-eared fox.
Back home her parents leave her in the care of friends while they go to look after a sick Aunt in Sierra Leone. Makena has never been apart from her warm and loving family before but after her parents do not return from their week away she becomes increasingly anxious and that is when she discovers Ebola has struck and her parents will not be returning. Makena is then farmed out to a half-uncle and his wife Pricilla who immediately uses her as an unpaid babysitter for her children and takes the money meant for Makena’s education to buy herself fashionable clothes. When Makena is thrown out of the house by her step-uncle as his wife is terrified of catching Ebola she decides to go back to Nairobi. Lonely and afraid she does not know who to turn to once there but is found by an albino girl, Snow who lives in the slums. They soon become firm friends and are enjoying a rare moment of happiness on Makena’s birthday when a bulldozer raises their part of the slum to the ground and they become separated. In the nick of time Makena is found by an aid worker and taken back to Hope 4 Africa Home for Girls. There Makena is slowly nursed back to health by Helen and her team but when she finally wakes up Helen has gone back to her home Scotland for a family bereavement. Even when Helen brings her to Scotland for Christmas Makena feels let down and cannot believe that anyone will want to care for her. Everything nearly ends in disaster until the magical fox comes back to save her.
This is a life-affirming and moving story which packs a similar emotional punch to a Michael Morpurgo novel. It’s a tad uneven in places and tough issues are not glossed over but it is such a compelling and compassionate tale that it carries you along willingly. Courage and love shine through the heartbreak. Lauren St John’s skill in setting the scene is evident in her depiction of both the warmth and colour of Africa and the colder but equally dramatic landscape of the Scottish Highlands – so evocative and visual you feel you are standing there with Makena. This is a gem of a book. The illustrations will be gorgeous too judging by the few seen in the proof.