by Shannon Gibney; Dutton (335 pages, $17.99)
When refugees of Liberia’s civil war began arriving in Minnesota in the 1990s, they encountered the typical challenges of new immigrants, along with some unexpected resentment from U.S.-born blacks.
Minneapolis writer Shannon Gibney’s new novel, “Dream Country,” traces the roots of this conflict, following five generations of one family from a Virginia plantation to Liberia’s founding by freed slaves to a reverse migration 150 years later during the country’s brutal civil war.
The story opens in Brooklyn Center, where 16-year-old Kollie is navigating adolescent turbulence as he tries to find his footing between cultures.
At his large public high school, he’s harassed by black
students for being too “jungle.” At home, his parents work long hours at menial jobs and expect him to be a dutiful son. He sees the school’s white security guard brutally beat a black student, while later letting Kollie off with a wink.
When these tensions boil over in a school fight that leads to Kollie’s suspension, his parents decide to send him back to Monrovia to keep him away from bad influences at home.
The narrative loops back in time to Liberia in 1926, where Togar, a member of the Bassa ethnic group, is fleeing from agents of the country’s Liberico-American rulers, who want to force him to work on a plantation off the West African coast.
A deeper jump in time folds in the story of Yasmine, a freed slave who escapes the antebellum South with her children for what she hopes is a better life in the new colony of Liberia.
The novel comes full circle with Kollie’s father, Ujay, who falls in love with a “privileged indigenous” woman in Monrovia, even as he puts his faith and ideals in a revolution that will spark two decades of civil war.
“Dream Country” is an ambitious novel, tackling colonialism, slavery and racist violence across centuries, and the way that an oppressed group—such as freed slaves— can replicate that oppression in a new environment.
Gibney’s linked stories and movement across time echo other historic epics, such as Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing,” that also attempt to knit a diasporic history on both sides of the Atlantic slave trade.
The challenge of this loosely linked form is that just as readers become invested in one character, the story jumps to another. Some of these jumps feel abrupt, abandoning characters deep into their narrative arc.
But that frustration is balanced by sometimes hilarious encounters with minor characters, such as an old man Ujay tries to brush off before a date at a tea house.
In the end, “Dream Country” asks big questions and exposes new histories as it digs into the complexities of what Gibney calls “the ongoing, spiraling history of the AfricanAfrican American encounter.”
As one character says, the dreamer is always part of the dream.