Book review of REPORTING LIVES by Debra Pickett—Inspired by real life experience, Reporting Lives immerses the reader in a fascinating meeting of unlikely worlds: ambitious urban journalist meets third world Kenya. The author, Debra Pickett, worked on an international assignment in Africa to help HIV-impacted women and families in the 2000s.
The protagonist of the story, Sara Simone, is a young reporter working the grief beat for a Chicago television station. She is remarkably good at it, perhaps fluent in the language of sudden grief because she has experienced it, by losing her parents in a car accident ten years earlier. She is not proud of her capacity to get the sobbing widow to pour her heart out on camera, but she accepts it a stepping stone to the higher echelons of journalism.
One day, she arrives on the scene of a burning school bus and sees the bodies of what turn out to be African exchange students being laid out on the street. She goes to Kenya to pursue a fuller story on these victims—or at least film their distraught mothers.
But in the slums of Nairobe, something different happens. The sun burns her skin and exposes a rawness in her. Having never done anything before without a plan, she walks away from her job and the sobbing mothers’ story and into a real experience of Africa, from a refined safari resort to ramshackle shelters filled with the orphans of AIDS.
She is befriended by a young American service worker, Trisha, whose warm and nurturing ways bring out a softer side in Sara, and the Canadian backpacker, Jeff, who apparently has left a life not unlike Sara’s behind to seek personal growth in Africa.
In the throes of an upended environment, the young reporter has her belief system shaken and she becomes more painfully self-aware, especially of her perceived shortcomings. She wants answers about an attack that left many of her recent acquaintances dead; and even more than that, she eventually realizes, she wants to do right by the dead boys.
Upon her return to Chicago, Sara is disoriented and without a job. She finds herself getting closer to her neighbor, Vince. In the days and weeks that follow, she must begin to sort out what it all means, and what choices she will make about the bigger arc of her life.
I like Reporting Lives for taking on big questions, for having an expansive scope and broad lens, and for doing it gracefully, without insisting upon answers. The author’s background in journalism shows in the spare evocativeness of her writing and the page-turner pace of the book.
At the same time, she weaves in profound observations about being human, and about the state of our world, beautifully expressed. For example: To mourn someone, you first had to give yourself over to them. You had to build the connection that seemed like it would never be broken, even though, of course, it would be. You had to fool yourself about the reality of loss. You had to imagine the possibility of forever.
It is this kind of writing, born of an alchemy of experience, reflection, vulnerability and skill, that has me looking forward to Debra Pickett’s second book.