A Journey of Hope
by Jenna Bush
HarperCollins, 304 pp., $18.99
Throngs of shoppers and the accompanying shortage of parking spaces usually keep me away from my local shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. But I made the trip on a Saturday a few weeks ago after I discovered--through a smattering of ads in my hometown newspaper--that Jenna Bush would be speaking about and signing copies of her new book at Borders in the Annapolis (Md.) Mall. This would be her first public event for the book, it was said, which is based on her recent work with the United Nations Children's Fund.
I felt more than a little pleased that the First Daughter had chosen my Maryland town over larger venues in nearby Washington, including the Library of Congress's National Book Festival--a tremendous annual showcase of authors which was taking place that same day on the National Mall (her mother has hosted the event for the last six years). Evidently, this first-time author preferred a more modest-sized crowd--much to the delight of the 150-plus people who passed through security under the watchful gaze of the Secret Service, and eagerly gathered on the Borders second floor to hear her presentation.
At 26, the former "wild twin" is self-assured, yet unpretentious, with a raspy voice and youthful sparkle in her eye. Having spent 18 months teaching third- and fifth-graders at Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Washington, she is at ease addressing a group and, during her 20-minute talk, made lots of eye contact with the pre-teen girls sitting in the front row--and with her fiancé, seated a few rows back. She graciously thanked her audience for showing up and for showing interest in Ana's Story--a nonfiction account geared toward young adults, and a product of her yearlong internship with UNICEF's Latin America and Caribbean office. During her internship, Bush lived in Panama and traveled to Jamaica, Paraguay, and Argentina to document the lives of the impoverished children, many of them orphans, that UNICEF serves--and to listen to and write about what she calls "their stories of hope of resilience."
The story that affected her most was told by Ana, a 17-year-old single mother living in Panama, born with HIV. ("Ana" is a pseudonym.) Jenna Bush met Ana at a community group that included women and children living with HIV/AIDS, and found herself amazed and inspired by Ana's strength and positive attitude after all she had faced in her young life. Ana's story is one of unfathomable hardship: She lost her baby sister, mother, and father to AIDS all before she entered the sixth grade; she was sexually abused by a family friend; and she must struggle to keep her "secret" (that she is infected with HIV) from her friends and classmates. She continues to shuffle from home to home, and is treated harshly by many family members. When she fell in love and became pregnant at age 16, she had to face the agonizing possibility that her baby would be infected as well. Fortunately, Ana's daughter, 14 months old when the book was written, had thus far tested negative for HIV.
Jenna Bush spent nine months with Ana, learning about her life and writing her story. As she explains in her preface, "This book is based on Ana's childhood and adolescence as she told it to me. It is a mosaic of her life, using words instead of shards of broken tile to create an image of her past and a framework for her future. It also embodies all of what I've learned working with UNICEF."
As she read from Ana's Story, I saw tears form in the corner of more than one listener's eyes. Bush employs straightforward, unadorned language, and lavish imagery, to narrate the story of Ana's life, the substance of which is often grim yet tinged with the girl's pure, enduring hopes for a better life. The chapters are short, the pages are glossy, and the photographs are enchanting: pink baby clothes dangling from a clothesline; tiny tropical-colored houses lining the streets in Ana's hogar; a beautiful young mother (presumably Ana), her face turned away from the camera as she cradles her sleeping child. The photographer is Jenna Bush's friend, 25-year-old Mia Baxter, a fellow graduate of the University of Texas and UNICEF intern.
Ana's Story is poignant in its own right, but made more so when you think about the author and her -heroine. Here is a young woman born into a life of privilege and opportunity telling the story of another young woman born into a life that couldn't be more different. This unnerving dichotomy makes reading Ana's Story incredibly powerful and humbling, and at the end, Bush appeals to teens and young adults to "make a difference" through volunteering, and lays out a detailed list of the things they can do in their communities and beyond.
Just as Jenna Bush's audience applauded loudly at the end of her talk, readers will applaud her scrupulous attention to detail--in her writing, in her call to action, in her budding humanitarianism.
Erin Montgomery is a writer in Annapolis.