In book form, Crothers is able to broaden and deepen Phiona’s remarkable story. He digs into the people and places surrounding her. He narrates the curious history of Katwe’s settlement, the difficulties navigated by several generations of Phiona’s family, and the tradition of chess as a game for elites. He spends substantial time with Katende.
Katende’s methods of teaching chess to restless children are fascinating. At its best, “The Queen of Katwe” channels the metaphors implicit in chess to reveal how limits, possibilities, and high stakes shape life in this corner of the world. Crothers quotes Katende, speaking as a teacher: “Someday you will be able to read your opponent’s mind many moves in advance.... You will see what is going to happen on the chessboard before it happens. You are all going to be prophets.”
It’s a gorgeous moment that speaks to the power of this story. But “The Queen of Katwe” was rushed from article to book – only 20 months separate their publications – and the haste is obvious. Not enough substance comes through to justify the broadened scope.
Reporting poverty is a tricky, albeit urgent, act, and challenges escalate when you’re an outsider in both culture and language. Katherine Boo is author of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” another book about young people in slums (she focuses on India’s Annawadi). In her afterword, Boo discusses the need to compensate for her shortcomings by working “slowly and patiently” – she spent about three years reporting – with the classic tools of journalism: “time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked.”
This was not the recipe for “Queen of Katwe.
Crothers, as a sportswriter, knows that the action is better than the post-game interview. So it’s surprising that so much of the book hinges on after-the-fact explanation, rather than real-time observation. While he recreates scenes, they’re leadened by quotes that feel “told,” unlike living language, and by the curse of “first-this, then-that” chronology. It conveys the tenor of a dispatch, rather than a fully realized book.