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Book Club Series — The Shadow King

“She is a soldier trapped inside a barbed-wire fence, but she is still at war and the battlefield is her own body, and perhaps, she has come to realize as a prisoner, that is where it has always been.”
― Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King

Welcome to the Women for Women International Book Club! This month we’re reading The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. 

This remarkably stirring and beautifully written novel by author Maaza Mengiste is set in Ethiopia during World War II and focuses on the rarely acknowledged women soldiers who joined the men in fighting against their Italian invaders. At the center of the story is an orphaned servant named Hirut, whose heartbreaking experiences, resilience, and strength make her an unforgettable hero. 

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Why The Shadow King is important...

At its heart, The Shadow King is an exploration of female power. The book tells of the many Ethiopian women who courageously helped defend their homeland during the Italian invasion of WWII. Rarely mentioned in historical narratives, the story of these female soldiers—a very personal one for Mengiste, whose great grandmother was among them—is not only a heartrending tribute, but an enlightening and important contribution to the pages of history.

Through the three main female characters in the story—Hirut, the vulnerable orphaned servant; Aster, the mercurial mistress of the household and wife to army leader Kidane; and the staunch unnamed cook—we are shown varying aspects of limitations and abuses Ethiopian women faced, and continue to endure … and how each of the characters suffer at the hands of the men in their lives.

Though the women’s relationships are deeply fraught with pain and hostility stemming from their respective hardships, constraints, and disappointments, we get to witness a spectacular transformation as the reality of war encompasses them. As boundaries deteriorate and gender roles blur, we see the women—each a mighty entity in their own right—band together and use their talent and power to fight for their country.  

Sadly, women in Ethiopia today continue to face gender-based violence today, including the use of rape as a weapon of war. Through our Conflict Response Fund, Women for Women International supports these survivors and helps them rebuild their lives. Learn more about our work to serve women survivors in Ethiopia.

Discussion Questions

Check out the discussion questions for The Shadow King below, and connect with readers on Instagram to share your reactions, thoughts, and questions by using the hashtag #WFWIBookClub, and tagging us with @womenforwomen. We want to hear what you think—share your take on the book with us! 

  1. The Shadow King highlights the previously lesser-known role of female soldiers fighting in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (and in world conflicts more generally). To what extent do you think art is the most useful means of changing existing historical narratives? What are the advantages of using fiction to showcase new aspects of historical experience, versus nonfiction?
  2. Characters in The Shadow King are anchored by objects that carry great significance for them: Hirut’s rifle, Aster’s necklace, Ettore’s letters. What do you think accounts for the power of these physical objects? Are there any objects in your life that hold a similar kind of strong personal significance?
  3. What do you think about Kidane’s use of the nickname “Little One” for Hirut and, in a flashback, Aster? What do you think he intends to convey by using this phrase, and how do Hirut and Aster respond to it?
  4. What do we learn about the story of the cook’s life through her scenes with Hirut and Aster? Why is the cook the only character in the novel to remain unnamed?
  5. The ethics of Ettore’s work are ambiguous. On one hand, his photographs help him “bear witness” (p. 287) to the violence of war, but on the other hand, Ettore feels increasingly uncomfortable with his work and feels that “every photograph has become a broken oath with himself” (p. 291). To what extent are Ettore’s war photographs important records of violence perpetrated, and to what extent are they acts of violence?
  6. Minim becomes a shadow king for Emperor Haile Selassie, but the novel is full of characters who act as doubles or shadow versions of one another. How many characters in The Shadow King function as the shadow of another character? What do you think comprises or defines a shadow king?
  7. Why does Emperor Haile Selassie flee Ethiopia? How did the sections from his perspective influence the narrative? Did you feel sympathy for him, anger, some other emotion?
  8. Aster, Kidane, Leo Navarro, and Haile Selassie have all lost children, and Hirut has lost both of her parents. How does the loss reverberate through their lives, and how do those losses explicitly shape their actions and choices in relation to other characters?

The questions above are selected from the novel’s Reading Group Guide. You can find a full list of discussion questions here.