05 August 2010

Book Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Title:  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Author: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Release Date: 27 July 2010
Date Finished:

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, Reading Resolutions, Hogwarts Reading Challenge, Non-Fiction Five,

The Short and Sweet of It
William Kamkwamba of Malawi had an affinity and knack for science from a very young age. After a famine causes widespread starvation and financial disaster, William can not afford to go to school, so he starts self-teaching at the local library. When he finds a book on windmills, he determines to build one himself - using nothing more than his own ingenuity, a library textbook, and garbage found in the junkyard.

A Bit of a Ramble

When people write about memoirs like this, reviews tend to focus on the person and what he/she accomplished more than on the telling of it: what he did is so amazing/inspiring/admirable/etc., the barriers she had to overcome were herculean, and so on and so forth. Let's get this part of the way: Kamkwamba is one awesome dude. The man created electricity out of trash he found lying around, he was entirely self-taught from library books, and he accomplished this amazing feat in a place most people couldn't survive. He is remarkable.  Now on to the book itself.

The first half of the book sets the stage for the creation of Kamkwamba's windmill.  In this section, readers are given access to life in Malawi, in particular a detailed accounting of one season's famine in which many people died of starvation and all suffered.  I understand why this was done: it laid the foundation for the necessity of the windmill, the desperate circumstances in which Kamkwamba's family and the entire town lived; however, I found myself wishing I could just get to the windmill story, feeling I didn't need any more details to show me the harsh conditions of living in Africa.  I seem to be alone in this feeling as many reviewers have said that they really enjoyed the day-to-day details included in the forward section. I think that while the backdrop is interesting, it's not what I was expecting with this book.

Kamkwamba's first windmill outside his home

The section about the building of the windmill is pretty science heavy, but the details of construction are interspersed with what, to me, were the most moving portions. Kamkwamba may have been the brains of the operation, but he would not have succeeded without his two friends, Gilbert and Geoffrey. The idea of one genius boy building a windmill is heartwarming, but for some reason, the fact that his two friends - the only two people in the village who weren't actively insulting William and calling him crazy - actually helped build the windmill really hit my happy center. Envisioning three young boys running around a junkyard for parts, working together on this monstrous project, really captured my imagination.

The final section of the book quickly recounts Kamkwamba's life after people outside the village heard about his windmill. Obviously and deservedly, he received a lot of international attention, and through the aid of various people and organizations, he was able to go to good schools and continue his entrepreneurial inventions.  This section just felt jumbled to me, no real depth to his experiences outside of his home village. And I just get annoyed when he's in America for the first time, and everything is all "the white man is so spectacular with his shiny things".

The writing took some getting used to for me. I'm thinking Kamkwamba and Mealer were going for authenticity: English as a second language style sentence structure, sentence length, and word choice. I get the reasoning, but I felt like this construction coupled with the piecemeal-ish writing detracted from my reading experience. I am most definitely in the minority here as I would hazard a guess that 99% of the reviews I've read have said that this is a great read and comes highly recommended. Perhaps it just wasn't my cup of tea.

The Filmic Connection

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Rat's Reading; Word Lily; The Ya Ya Yas; Bookworm's Dinner; Starting Fresh; Booklust; The Zen Leaf; Find Your Next Book Here;

Big Thank You to TLC Book Tours for offering me the chance to read and review this book. For more information on this tour, including other blog stops, head on over to the dedicated page at TLC Book Tours.


  1. Ha! Funny how very similar our thoughts were! :D It's a good thing I know you'd written your review before reading mine. We both even thought to put in a picture of the windmill itself, right about in the same place in the reviews. :D I love it.

    Honestly I wish he'd written this up in his own language and allowed someone to translate it, rather than working with a ghost writer of sorts to try to replicate a tone. I feel it was the adaptation that bothered me so much.

  2. Amanda - I thought the exact same thing when I read your review. I even thought about changing my own, but it said what I wanted it to say, and I figured you knew me and my blog well enough to know I didn't copy. :)

    And I agree completely about the prose. I just didn't like it; it was too choppy for me entirely.

  3. Great review! It's nice to see more balanced reviews out there. I put this on my list after seeing his appearance on The Daily Show. I'll still probably give it a read, but at least now I'll have better expectations.

  4. You and Amanda did have similar thoughts!!! I did kind of focus on the story rather than the telling of the story. I didn't expect him to turn in a literary masterpiece, and I wanted to hear his story like it was coming from him. I did like learning about his life in Malawi. As with any book, we're all going to feel different about it. At least we all agree how amazing his story is!! ; )

  5. Amanda wasn't a huge fan of the book itself either. I'm still interested to read it to see who I agree with :) Definitely a great story, too bad the book didn't live up to it.

  6. I love a true story, and would probably overlook the writing and allow myself to be enamoured with the story itself. My glasses can be rose-colored that way...I am almost too emotional with this stuff. Still I so want to read this!

  7. I think I probably would feel the same way as you and Amanda did!

  8. I am right there with you on reaction to this read, though you are much more eloquent about your reasons than I am :-)

  9. Oh, I love how you review a book. You are just so dang good at it.

    I was happy to see this book here, I had picked it up at the store a few days ago, and couldn't decide whether to read it or not. It was interesting, but I didn't know If I'd be swallowed up the the story enough to purchase it.

    Thank you!

  10. Amy - I guess it's all about how in to the story you are, whether that over rides the writing.

    Jenners - It is definitely an amazing story, and I want Kamkwamba to come talk to me students (who would "rather be anywhere but in school").

    Amy - I think it just depends on the reader in this case. I got so caught up in the writing that I was constantly pulled out of the story; but perhaps someone who reads more non-fiction than I do wouldn't have this problem at all.

    Sandy - I don't think there is anything wrong with that. I just couldn't stay within the world of the book.

    Jill - It's really a toss up it seems as to whether or not a person will enjoy this one.

    Aarti - Aw, thanks. I think you are wrong though; you are a very articulate and eloquent writer.

    Alexandra - Thanks so much! Personally, I couldn't get in to the story much (obviously), but most other readers seemed to really enjoy this one, so I hate to recommend one way or the other. :) Total cop out.

  11. I did find a few parts a little too technical, but overall I really liked this book. I told my husband he should read it since he's a mechanical engineer.

  12. Memoir co-writers so often become more involved than the actual person the memoir is about! I hate that. I usually end up avoiding them altogether because of that. I agree with Amanda that Kamkwamba should have just written it himself in his language.

  13. Kathy - I do seem to be in the minority regarding this book. Maybe I just wasn't in the right frame of mind when I was reading.

    Cass - I'm wondering if a translator would have been a better idea too.

  14. I know what you mean about it being hard to separate the great thing a person did from the way his story is told. I'm sorry that the story portion didn't work for you. I've only just started reading this myself but I'm enjoying it so far. Thanks for being a part of the tour - hopefully your next read will be a better fit.

  15. I saw him when he was on the Daily Show and he was very charming.


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