Hum If You Don't Know the Words (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

I enjoy reading novels about historical events that have occurred during my lifetime, but I don’t remember much about the Soweto uprising in South Africa in 1976. I was living in Buffalo, a self-absorbed ten years old, about the age of Robin Conrad in the terrific new novel, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words.  Robin is a nine-year old white girl living with her family in Johannesburg, while Beauty Mbali is a black woman raising her children alone in Bantustan. The Soweto uprising causes both of their worlds to implode, when Robin’s parents are murdered and Beauty’s daughter, a student activist, disappears. When Robin’s aunt hires Beauty to look after Robin while she works, the two form a close bond. Events escalate when Robin conceals information about Beauty’s missing daughter. Robin learns that her family’s views about other races may not be correct, and Beauty comes to love Robin like one of her own children.

— Sharon K. Nagel

Set during the Apartheid in South Africa, the story follows two characters who live in different worlds but the same country. There is Beauty, who will stop at nothing to find her daughter during the Soweto Uprising, and there is ten-year-old Robin who goes through some horrific tragedy of her own that turns her world upside down. Robin and Beauty work at picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. They find each other, and though, they are from different worlds, they recognize the same sadness, anxiety, and fear inside the other. Bianca Marais does a remarkable job at breathing life into such a sad and tense time in South Africa's history; this is a book many people should have on their must-read lists of 2017.

— Jason Kennedy

Beautifully written story contrasting the beauty of the South African landscape against the harsh reality of 1976-77 apartheid. With the alternating voices of a black mother in search of her daughter who has vanished during a student uprising and a nine year old white girl orphaned by the death of her parents, Bianca Marais's book 'hums' a poignantly emotional song of familial hope.

— Jane Glaser

Here's Daniel's blog post about Hum If You Don't Know the Words.

— Daniel Goldin


Perfect for readers of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, a perceptive and searing look at Apartheid-era South Africa, told through one unique family brought together by tragedy.

Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a ten-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970s Johannesburg. In the same nation but worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her children alone after her husband's death. Both lives have been built upon the division of race, and their meeting should never have occurred...until the Soweto Uprising, in which a protest by black students ignites racial conflict, alters the fault lines on which their society is built, and shatters their worlds when Robin's parents are left dead and Beauty's daughter goes missing.

After Robin is sent to live with her loving but irresponsible aunt, Beauty is hired to care for Robin while continuing the search for her daughter. In Beauty, Robin finds the security and family that she craves, and the two forge an inextricable bond through their deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty finds her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, so she makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences. Her quest to make amends and find redemption is a journey of self-discovery in which she learns the harsh truths of the society that once promised her protection.

Told through Beauty and Robin's alternating perspectives, the interwoven narratives create a rich and complex tapestry of the emotions and tensions at the heart of Apartheid-era South Africa. Hum If You Don't Know the Words is a beautifully rendered look at loss, racism, and the creation of family.

About the Author

Bianca Marais holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto's SCS, and her work has been published in World Enough and Crime. Before turning to writing, she started a corporate training company and volunteered with Cotlands, where she assisted care workers in Soweto with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans. Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband.
Product Details
ISBN: 9780399575068
ISBN-10: 0399575065
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Publication Date: July 11th, 2017
Pages: 432
Language: English