This is a memoir by a young man from Malawi who, as a teenager, built a windmill – with only a book to guide him and using materials he was able to scrounge locally – to bring electricity to his home. William Kamkwamba is born one of several children in a farming family in rural Malawi, grows up without electricity or running water, and endures more than his share of hardship as a boy, including a severe famine and having to drop out of school (which is a real hardship for a smart and ambitious kid who loves science) due to his family’s inability to pay the fees. But he perseveres and ultimately gains international recognition and support.
All that makes a great story, and ultimately a triumphant one, though readers shouldn’t expect a feel-good book from start to finish – the section on the famine is long and detailed. But it is a quick and easy read. In fact, the matter-of-fact writing style is perhaps too simple; it is unclear to me why there is a separate young-adult version of this book, when this is about as YA as a memoir can get. It is also most definitely written for an American audience: for instance, by explaining Malawian holidays in terms of American ones. But, I suppose the co-author’s job was making the story accessible, and in its content it feels true to the way a technologically-minded boy views the world. There is a lot of discussion of Kamkwamba’s projects (though again, written in a very accessible way) and much less insight into the people around him, only a few of whom get much notice.
But I don’t want to criticize this book too harshly for not being a literary memoir, when it isn’t meant to be. It is meant to be the story of a talented kid who achieves his dreams in the face of incredible odds, and in that sense it’s a success.