The Secret Keeper
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In 2000, Danny Kellerman was given the chance to move beyond his newspaper office in England and become a correspondent in war-torn Sierra Leone, a country ravaged by roving bands of drug-addled and ruthless child-soldiers, led by merciless men who longed to control the country’s most precious resource, diamond mines. While there, he met and fell in love with the American aid worker Maria Tirado, but he could not convince her to leave behind her cause – the rehabilitation of the country’s growing number of ex-child soldiers – for a life with him in London.
Now, in 2004, Maria’s tireless efforts to rehabilitate the ex-Revolutionary United Front youth have garnered her unwanted and hostile attention, and she sends a cryptic letter to Danny, asking him to return to Sierra Leone. It turns out that her plea for help arrives too late: by the time Danny receives the letter, she’s been dead for three weeks, murdered in what local officials have deemed a robbery. Danny, however, knows there’s more to the story than the few paltry facts he’s been given.
Together with his former driver Kam and a wealthy Lebanese businessman named Ali, Danny seeks to uncover a secret that undermines the façade of peace that’s come to settle over Sierra Leone. When their questions about Maria’s death and her involvement in the politics of the country become too intrusive, though, Danny must decide whether Maria’s memory – and the memory of those people victimized by the very people now in power – are worth the lives of those who have managed to survive under this corrupt and brutal new regime.
Suspenseful and thrilling, Paul Harris’ The Secret Keeper is a work of fiction that brings to life the very real atrocities perpetrated by the crime lords and child armies of Sierra Leone at the turn of the century. It touches on the subjects of trust, betrayal, loyalty and friendship, as well as the power of the righteous versus the power of greed.
- Discuss the effects of the prologue to the novel –does it force you to see Danny as a sympathetic character, no matter what you discover about him in the rest of the book? What motifs are introduced in the prologue and carry through the rest of the story?
- The book chapters alternate between 2004, the year that Maria dies, and 2000, when Danny first goes to Sierra Leone on assignment for The Statesman. Evaluate this structure and the way it controls the pace of the novel and creates suspense. Did you find it effective? How do the flashbacks influence the reader’s impression of the present events?
- Discuss Danny’s relationship with Kam – what did you make of their friendship as the book progressed? Did you ever doubt Kam as Danny did? Why or why not?
- Evaluate how well the author painted a picture of the political situation in Sierra Leone at the turn of the century, from the RUF to the mercenaries to press corps to the UN peacekeepers and aid workers. Despite this being a work of fiction, what nonfiction issues does the book bring to light?
- Discuss the moments in the book when Danny does his war reporting with Kam. What did these incidents reveal about Danny’s breadth of experience, both as a journalist and as a man in the world? In what tangible (and intangible) ways did he change as he did more war reporting? What does the novel do to confirm or dispel stereotypes about journalists and the world of journalism?
- Similarly, how is the book a commentary on European and American involvement in the domestic affairs of African nations? Does the book support or condemn foreign peacekeeping missions, or does it reveal the situation to be more complex than “good” or “bad”?
- Compare and contrast the few women in this novel – Maria with Rachel, and Rose with Danny’s mother. Consider, in particular, Rose’s and Danny’s mother’s capacity for forgiveness, and their ability to love someone who hurt or betrayed them so badly. Also, consider Rachel’s ability to be friends with her past lovers. Does Danny learn from these women? What evidence is there, in the novel, that he might be following their examples?
- Out of all of Danny’s acquaintances and friends in Sierra Leone, who did you feel was most trustworthy as you read the book? Did you suspect any of the characters of double-dealing from the start? Who, and why?
- One of the primary subjects in the novel is betrayal. Danny is particularly affected by those betrayals involving the women in his life: Rachel and her new lover; Maria and her CIA connections; and to an extent, his mother and her unrelenting love for his father and sympathy for his father’s widow. Discuss the other places in the novel where betrayal surfaces, and what the author is saying about betrayal and its place in the human experience.
- Similarly, what is the author saying about trust? Based on the characters in this book, should we believe in such a thing as trust? Using Danny as an example, discuss whether or not we can or should even trust ourselves to make the right choices in life.
- Was justice served with Harvey’s death at the end of the book? Do you think it gave Danny real closure to know that his letter had done its job? Do you think he did the right thing by agreeing to keep quiet about Maria’s blue file? In the end, were a few lives worth more than the memory of the hundreds of murdered and mutilated Sierra Leoneans?
- Do you think Maria truly loved Danny? What evidence in the book do you find to support this? What part(s) of Maria’s personality do you think was/were authentic and true?
- To whom does the title of the book refer? Do you think it is Danny? Is it Maria? Could it be Harvey? Discuss the title of the book in the context of the novel, and how it could apply to more than one character.