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Excerpt! Experience the Power of Sue Farrell Holler's Cold White Sun

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In Cold White Sun (Groundwood Books), a new young adult novel by Sue Farrell Holler, Tesfaye lives a happy life with his mother, sisters, and brother, safe behind the walls of their compound in Ethiopia. He knows little about his important father's political career or views, until rebel forces take over the capital and everything changes.

When his father is arrested, Tesfaye's familiar, safe reality disappears completely - to the point that his life is in danger and his options disappear until the only route out is with a human smuggler. He ends up in Canada, where he is left, alone, on a bus with ten dollars - thousands of miles from the family he loves.

We're excited to present an excerpt from this powerful story on Open Book today, courtesy of Groundwood Books. 

Excerpt from Cold White Sun by Sue Farrell Holler:

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The glow of the melting sun stained the clouds that hung low over the Entoto Mountains, turning all that was familiar into dark silhouette: the gates of the compound with their sharp points of wrought iron, the tall arms of the eucalyptus trees in the garden. Even the chickens looked different in the evening, like demons that moved their heads back and forth on a string.

The guards shouted to each other and rushed to pull the gates inward. Gashe’s navy blue Peugeot rolled in. He’d arrived safely, home before curfew, when the gates would be chained and the Special Police would prowl. Night was a dangerous time, full of the unknown. People disappeared after dark, but inside the gates, Ishi and I were safe to race the chickens.

“Go, Chicken Little. Go!” I yelled. My chicken was the best and she was winning. I jumped up and down to encourage her, then crouched to show her the juicy slugs I had collected for her prize. I would win this race and my brother would lose. My belly would be full this night. I would get his portion, plus my own.

“Come. Come,” Ishi said, breaking the rules and going behind the chicken to flap frantically at the bird that could not fly. His chicken sat, fluffed her tail feathers and nestled in the dirt.

“I win! I win!” I yelled. I fed Chicken Little the fat worms one by one and patted the soft feathers of her head. Ishi yelled, too.

“No! I win! I win!” he screamed, moving his chicken and lifting a still-warm egg. He held it in the air like the prize it was. “Tonight, I will have this egg for my supper!”

He twirled in a big circle, holding up the chicken’s gift as Gashe drove his car into the garden.

Our father did not wave or nod as he moved through our game. He did not toot his horn or notice the prized egg, laid at such an unusual time. He pulled to the side of the house and parked in his line of fancy cars and the ugly pickup he used to drive us to school. We looked his way when he cut the engine, to see if he might be carrying a sack heavy with mangoes or papayas, but today his hands were empty. Ishi and I disappeared like cockroaches into the far reaches of the house. To be seen by Gashe was to invite a reprimand or a slap. We were too old for Gashe now that we spent our days in school, too old to swarm his car in the hope of the first piece of fruit, too old to hold his hand as he wandered through the garden bending to smell flowers and watering already wet plants.

But we were not so old that we had forgotten the feel of his embrace as he laughed and held us close.

Ishi and I hid in the top of the house, in the space with bare rafters where you could see stars through the tin roof at night if they lined up just right. The stars had not come yet and so we waited in this secret room where our cousins from the country would hide and lie quiet when the soldiers came to make them join the army. It was a good place to hide. The soldiers had never found this room.

We rolled on the floor covered in a fine layer of silt and fought for the best place to see the sky, to be the first to see the evening star when it poked its way through the darkness.

“It will be a good night to watch stars,” Ishi said. “No moon.”

“No moon yet,” I said. “The moon will rise as big and round as Etheye’s belly before another baby comes. And the clouds. Do you not see all the clouds?” I lay close beside my brother. The two of us peered through the biggest hole worn by rain and hail. It was the largest, but still it was only the size of a coin, just big enough to glimpse moon and stars if you moved just right, and if your brother did not get his big head in the way.

“Watch and wait,” said Ishi. He stretched full length on his back and folded his arms beneath his head. “Remember, I am the smartest. I am the boy with the egg.”

My stomach called at the mention of food. I hoped this night it was three-burn injera with generous amounts of wat, and that Gashe was not so hungry, and that he did not have guests. We listened, as we always did, for the booming sound of Gashe’s voice, or the scuttle of servants sent to seek us.

Pulsing light filled the cloud. The whap-whap-whap of rotors. The vibration shook our bodies. The helicopter cruised low, the belly of it just visible through the tin roof. It felt as if an earthquake had shaken the world.

“It’s on top of us!” I jumped to my feet.

“It’s going to land in the garden!” Ishi yelled. We dashed from the secret room, racing to be the first down the cement steps, to be the first to see.

Rat-a-tatt-tatt-tatt. Machine guns. Rapid fire. Rat-a-tatt- tatt-tatt. Rat-a-tatt-tatt-tatt.

From the street, maybe? From the top of a compound wall? Whose house? Whose house this time?

Banging oil drums in the street. Rumbling. Motors. Rat- a-tatt-tatt-tatt. Loud voices. Commands barked. Screaming from the street. Screaming in our house. Our sisters’ high- pitched wails. Etheye calling the little ones to her.

Ishi and I froze in the room where we slept at the bottom of the stairs. He ran to the window, standing on his toes to peer into the dusk, and I followed, our heads as close together as Siamese twins. There was no movement in the garden, just the sounds behind the thick wall that kept us safe. Rat-a-tatt-tatt-tatt.

“Can bullets go through walls?” Ishi asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “They’re cement. Thick cement.”

We moved to the middle of the room just in case.

“Here!” I tugged the edge of a mattress. We flopped it against the window, the tall side nearly to the ceiling. We dragged another and another, until all of the mattresses covered the glass.
Rat-a-tatt-tatt-tatt. Rat-a-tatt-tatt-tatt. The squeal of air released from a balloon. We fell flat on our stomachs like soldiers in a movie.

Boom! A bomb exploded. Its echo traveled from cement wall to cement wall.

Close. The sounds were close.
“What’s happening?” asked Ishi.
“I don’t know. Maybe someone was on the street past curfew,” I said.
“Must be a lot of people,” he said.
We wriggled like snakes across the floor, staying low.

The groaning now a roar. Heavy machinery crawled on the street. Inside, the warmth of coffee beans roasting, the sound of girls whimpering. We edged the hallway. Another explosion. is one in the distance.

“I want to see,” said Ishi.
We slid beneath the layers of curtains, hoping to see what made this noise. We saw only a flock of startled birds through the window grilles.

The window vibrated. We dropped low. The machine guns again. Commands shouted. We inched our eyes above the sill, just enough so that we could see. The clouds shifted to reveal the moon’s light. Soldiers with machine guns stood atop our wall.

The guns were not at the house of a neighbor. The guns had come here.

We were surrounded. Guns pointed at our house.
The gate to our compound swung open.


This excerpt is taken from Cold White Sun, copyright © 2019 by Sue Farrell Holler. Reproduced with permission from Groundwood Books, Toronto.

Sue Farrell Holler is a journalist, literacy advocate and the author of picture books and a middle-grade novel, including Lacey and the African Grandmothers (Second Story Press, 2009). She is a member of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, past president of the Grande Prairie Children’s Literature Roundtable and former director of the Young Alberta Book Society.

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Cold White Sun

Tesfaye lives behind the safe walls of his family’s compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His father is an important man, Tesfaye goes to one of the best schools in the city, his mother and older sisters keep him fed and cared for. He and his beloved brother, Ishi, can spend their time playing soccer, racing chickens and spying on the guests — as long as they stay away from the sharp horns of the family’s goat and avoid their father’s fiery temper.

When rebel forces take over the capital, life becomes more complicated. Tesfaye’s father’s cousin takes him to live in the former imperial palace, and Tesfaye becomes the most favored son. His father takes him along when he gives political speeches and distributes leaflets. It is all very exciting, even if Tesfaye doesn’t pay attention to what the leaflets actually say.

And then suddenly his father is arrested, and Tesfaye’s own life is in peril. His mother sends him into hiding in her father’s village, until even that is too dangerous. Tesfaye is put in the care of a human smuggler and embarks on an uncertain, confusing and terrifying journey through Kenya, Europe and finally to Canada, where he is put on a Greyhound bus with ten dollars and instructions to stay on the bus until someone tells him to get off. You are safe now, says the smuggler. You are in Canada. This country will protect you.

And so begins his new life in North America, sheltered for a while by fellow expats, threatened by the authorities, shunted from a group home to foster care. But through it all he is plagued by confusion and grief, wondering whether he will ever know what has happened to the family he left behind.