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Orphaned by war, saved by ballet – Michaela DePrince’s autobiography

I’m not a particular fan of non-fiction. I find that much of it is written like academic textbooks, full of boring dates and unimaginative descriptions. However, I have found some good in the past few months.

One of these is Michaela dePrince’s life story. Hope in a Ballet Shoe sounds like a fluffy title and I delayed reading it for this very reason. But, having interviewed the petite, soft-spoken young woman a few years ago, I decided to at least try.

Michaela’s life reads like a film. Born as Mabinty Bangura in Sierra Leone in the middle of a bloody civil war, she was orphaned by the age of four. Despite being so young, she recalls vividly certain incidents while she was at an orphanage. Imprinted in her memory, is the label of “least favourite child”, meaning she was last to get food. She was ridiculed and isolated, because she suffers from a skin disease called vitiligo, which means she has pink spots all over her body, like a “leopard”, as she describes it. But the incident that caused her nightmares for years to come, was witnessing her pregnant teacher being slaughtered by the “debils” (a combination of the words “rebel” and “devil”, used to describe members of the Revolutionary United Front); the woman’s baby cut from her belly and flung into the bushes.

Her only good memory, was picking up the cover of a magazine during a windstorm one day. The front showed a ballerina wearing a pink tutu, on her pointe shoes, about to turn into a pirouette. Michaela stuffed it into her clothing and kept it, deciding that she too would dance on her toes one day.

hope in a ballet shoe

But more traumas were to come as the children of the orphanage fled to a refugee camp in Guinea, coming across hundreds of flea-infested bodies along the way. Michaela again experienced rejection, when various American families agreed to adopt all the orphans, except for her. But, her only friend at the orphanage promised they would be sisters. Michaela’s wish came true when the DePrince family adopted them both and they went to live in New Jersey.

The rest of the book describes Michaela’s childhood in America and how she pursued her dream of becoming a classical ballerina, despite the invisible door to black dancers.

This is a sweet, moving story of how a little girl overcame the odds and realised her dream. It is a quick and easy read and will appeal to both children and adults.

Rating: 3.5/5

Authors: Michael & Elaine DePrince

Local publisher: Jonathan Ball

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