Three fifteen year-old girls: Fiona, the daughter of an executive at a technology company in Vancouver who has just misplaced her phone, Sylvia, who bears the scars of an attack in her village in Congo and now lives in a refugee camp in Tanzania, and Laiping, a girl from a rural town working in a factory in Shenzhen, China so she can send money home to her family. They lead vastly different lives, but they all share one common connection: the mineral Coltan, or “blue gold” used to make electronics and cell phones.
After sending her boyfriend a topless picture of herself, Fiona loses her cell phone. Though her dad works for a company that makes electronics, he insists she get a job and pay for a new phone for herself. In Nyarugusu, Sylvie cares for her younger siblings and her mama, who won’t get up from her sleeping mat some days and insists that Sylvie’s father will join them soon. Sylvie’s brother, wooed by a local warlord, is slipping away from the family. The only way Sylvie can save them is through sponsorship to go to Canada. Laiping wants to please her supervisors at her new factory job and be a good daughter, sending money home for her father’s life-saving heart surgery. But when the company withholds her pay and punishes her for another’s defective work, Laiping begins to wonder whether she’ll ever be able to make a life for herself as a factory worker.
Told from the point-of-view of all three girls, Blue Gold relates three separate stories connected by the world’s desire for the mineral coltan. A nurse at Sylvie’s refugee camp sets up an online campaign to request aid for her, and Fiona and Laiping see the pictures of Sylvie posted online. They don’t know much more about the girl with the machete scar on her face, though. The politics surrounding the use of coltan are present in the novel, and it’s clearly a book with a message. Each girl’s story is compelling, however, and the passages certainly raise empathy for the real people enduring the conditions related in the tale, such as factories and refugee camps.
I really didn’t know much about coltan before reading this book. Through this story and the references included in the back, I’ve done a little more research and begun to look at which products and companies seem to be interested in or succeeding at supporting human rights and ethical production. One suggestion from a section at the back of the book suggests downloading an app called buycott, which can be used to scan the bar codes of items and provide information about whether it was produced in ways that cause harm to the environment or humanity. I’m eager to check it out.
One element that I found interesting was the way the use of cell phones and technology was portrayed throughout the story. A refugee camp worker uses a cell phone to take pictures and videos of Sylvie and her family in order to gather financial support and sponsorship to bring her to Canada. A photo of Laiping taken to test the cell phone camera makes its way across the globe to Fiona’s hands, connecting them, if only for a moment. For Sylvie, a viral photograph has the power to save; for Fiona, in the case of her nude picture, it can destroy. And certainly, where war and slavery rule the harvesting of coltan, technology and our need for the latest greatest gadgets can destroy lives. Technology connects us all, Stewart seems to be saying, for good or ill.
I liked that Stewart didn’t present the topic as a simple black-and-white issue. I really like that she includes a list of other sites and encourages readers to research products and companies for themselves. In reading reviews posted by others on sites like Goodreads, it seems clear that this book has elevated our awareness of problems surrounding coltan mining and factory conditions in China. I have to applaud her for those efforts, and I enjoyed reading this novel about them.
Sylvie briefly remembers being raped by soldiers before fleeing her home. There are a few details given, and it’s definitely the kind of scene that could be a trigger for rape or sexual abuse victims. Sylvie thinks about what it would be like to be married to a man she does not love, and compares it to what the soldiers did to her, saying she will withdraw inside herself, that the man can have her body, but never her.
Fiona sends her boyfriend a topless picture of herself which ends up being distributed online. She’s super embarrassed, and refuses to let her parents handle it, insisting she’ll make things right on her own. Her school principal warns her that distributing the picture is child pornography, and anyone (including Fiona) caught posting it or sending it out can be arrested. When Fiona finds out who first posted the picture, she refuses to out them. While I understood her reasons, I felt like it was a bad decision, and I found myself wishing her parents had insisted on being involved in the situation.
When one of Sylvie’s allies dies in a fight against a warlord, she prays that his spirit will not be trapped in Nyarugusu.
Sylvie and her mother were raped by soldiers before they fled from their home in DRC. Sylvie briefly remembers the event. For readers who are also victims, it could definitely be a trigger. A powerful warlord threatens Sylvie and her family. Soldiers exchange fire with refugees in one scene. In China, Laiping witnesses police brutalizing workers who’ve gathered for a rally to discuss rights and injustices at local factories. She is knocked to the ground and beaten.
Sylvie fears drunk men in the refugee camp who make lewd comments to her and may try to take advantage of her.
Fiona and her boyfriend go to a party where she gets very drunk. So drunk she’s ill and has to go home. Still drunk, she sends a topless picture of herself to her boyfriend. While she comes to deeply regret sending that picture, neither she nor her friends evaluate the role that drinking alcohol played in her willingness to send the photo to begin with.