Back-of-the-book blurb: In June of 2002, a very unusual ceremony begins in a far-flung village in western Kenya. An American diplomat is surrounded by hundreds of Maasai people. A gift is about to be bestowed on the American men, women, and children, and he is there to accept it. The gift is as unsought and unexpected as it is extraordinary.
A mere nine months have passed since the September 11 attacks, and hearts are raw. Tears flow freely from American and Maasai as these legendary warriors offer their gift to a grieving people half a world away.Word of the gift will travel news wires around the globe.
Many will be profoundly touched, but for Americans, this selfless gesture will have deeper meaning still. For a heartsick nation, the gift of fourteen cows emerges from the choking dust and darkness as a soft light of hope and friendship.
She is Too Fond of Books’ review: I first heard the story of 14 Cows for America when the book was published in the late summer of 2009; because of its connection to, indeed, its inspiration from the events of September 11, I read many very positive reviews around that time. Why, then, did it take me several more months to pick up a copy?! It’s been another month since I bought it, and I can finally read through it without crying or choking up (and that’s a feat!).
This is a wonderful book, based on a true story, and carrying a vivid message about compassion, empathy, and understanding. Deedy sets the story wholly in Kameli Naiyomah’s village in western Kenya. He has returned for a visit to his home after studying medicine in America; his western-style running shoes and Stanford sweatshirt contrast the traditions he encounters – a warrior’s blessing bestowed upon a young child, a visit with the Maasai tribal elders.
Deedy explains that the Maasai are nomadic cattle herders who honor those they tend:
… Without the herd, the tribe might starve. To the Maasai, the cow is life.
After Kameli has changed into traditional clothing, the tribe gathers around him to hear the story he has brought from America. Kameli tells of that day in September 2001; he was in the city and witnessed the devastation, the fires, the smoke and debris, the loss. He finishes the story and waits for a response, “he knows his people”:
They are fierce when provoked, but easily moved to kindness when they hear of suffering or injustice.
Kimeli combines the customary respect for the cow with his wish to offer something to America, and asks the elders to allow him to give his cow, with their blessing. The blessing is given readily, along with thirteen other cows, a beautiful gift representing life, healing, and love (this is where I usually tear up):
Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.
A note from Kimeli Naiyomah in the back of the book explains that these sacred cows will be tended to in perpetuity, and can never be slaughtered. At the time of publication, the herd had grown to over 35 cows … a gift for America.
A companion website to 14 Cows for America supplements the book, with information about the Maasai people, a pronunciation guide, and teacher’s resources.
This book trailer, created before the book’s release, will give you an idea of the bold illustrations of Thomas Gonzalez, rich with blues, browns, reds and oranges. Despite the emphasis on numbers in the trailer, this is not at all a counting book … unless the message is that human decency is what “counts:”
14 Cows for America is a beautifully illustrated book. It’s not just for children, however; it is an excellent way to introduce any discussion of compassion in a family, school, or church setting. The focus is on the response of the Maasai, not on the events of September 11.
FTC disclosure: I purchased this book at an independent bookstore.