THE QUEEN OF KATWE: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. By Tim Crothers. Scribner. 242 pages. $26.
One would hardly expect to find a world-class chess champion in Phiona Mutesi, yet that is what Tim Crothers discovered there. His article about Mutesi, “The Game of Her Life,” was published by ESPN in 2011 and became a finalist in the profile writing category of the National Magazine Awards. A movie may follow.
Mutesi grew up in Katwe, an overpopulated area in the city of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, that’s slowly turning into a slum. Houses are uncomfortably close to each other. Garbage is dumped onto the roads and left there for weeks before dustcarts collect it. Crothers asserts Katwe is one of the worst places on Earth.
That is what makes this story about an underdog so compelling. Mutesi, a girl who was said to have died twice, doesn’t attend school because her mother cannot afford the tuition after the death of her husband. She is described as dirty, with close-cropped hair that makes her look like a boy.
She never discusses her dreams. In her world, girls work in the fields or sell wares in makeshift stands or become illiterate young mothers. She discovers chess while out searching for food.
And chess changes her life. Every day she plays, every day she improves. Her talent results in her first plane ride. At 14, she was the first Ugandan woman to enter the Olympiad. This trip enabled her to travel outside of Africa to Siberia, where she was exposed to people of various cultures, races, ethnicities and ages.
Through winning at chess, beating both girls and boys, she discovers her self-worth, exhibits confidence and dreams of becoming a Grandmaster.
Home, so different from the places she visited, is difficult to return to. Many of her neighbors are dismayed that she is not a mother and she must ward off men who just want to sleep with her.
Crothers writes the story matter-of-factly, not relying on emotionally charged words to depict the struggle that Mutesi faces. This book reads like a newspaper article, reserving judgment and bias.
The story has no ending. Instead, it beckons the reader to wonder at the possibilities that lay before Mutesi, and it reminds us of the harsh reality in which she continues to live.
Reviewer Doretha Walker is an adjunct professor of women and gender studies at the College of Charleston.