Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

I've been reading young this fall.  It seems that the randomizer by which I lazily choose my reading has been skewing toward YA surprisingly often this year, and I've rather been enjoying having my reading seasoned with YA again.  It helps too, that I finally did Dewey's Readathon again this October, which lends itself to YA reading.

The Readathon was a golden opportunity to finally dig into Linda Sue Park's A Long Walk to Water.  This one slipped into my collection on the occasion of my very first BEA and has been woefully neglected ever since.  A Long Walk to Water is a mere 115 pages (making it an ideal Readathon book), but it packs a punch.

Park tells, side by side, the stories of two young characters, Salva, a young boy in 1980s Southern Sudan, forced to run for his life when the war against the northern government comes to his village, and Nya, a young girl in nearly present day Sudan whose life is defined by her endless walks to and from a distant pond to supply her family with precious and hard to come by water.  When gunshots ring out near Salva's school, his teacher rushes the kids out the door insisting that they must not return to their villages and potential slaughter but flee into the bush alone.  What follows is Salva's perilous journey among strangers across dangerous terrain to the safety of an Ethiopian refugee camp.  Nya's village struggles to find fresh water that won't sicken people, but it's becoming more and more difficult, until strangers arrive in her village with an unexpected gift.

A Long Walk to Water is a short book, but a weighty one based on the true story of Salva Dut's terrifying childhood in his war-torn native country.  It digs into the harsh realities of war in Sudan caused by both rebellion against the northern government that wants to force its Islamic beliefs on the whole nation and the dangerous animosity between the rival tribes of the south.  Salva's story is both heartbreaking and often hopeless, but his refusal to give up and his coming of age under impossible circumstances are ultimately inspirational.   Nya's story seems almost out of place, at first, highlighting the practical implications of living in an area where struggling to survive is forced to be the top priority, but the dual stories come together to offer a touching and pitch perfect ending.

What's a short book that you have read that has had a big impact?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy immigrated to the United States from their home in Egypt in search of the American dream.  It wasn't always easy, but in suburban Summerset, New Jersey, they thought they had found it.  Samir's medical practice was successful, the couple found fast friends in the family next door, and their children were growing up knowing the luxuries of American life.  But, when a heinous crime is committed by their oldest son, Hossam, the family is plunged into grief and the community they once felt a valuable part of turns forcefully against them.  In the Language of Miracles is the story of the Al-Menshawy family's struggles in the aftermath of their tragic awakening from the American dream that should have been their reality.

In the Language of Miracles is a story of faith and community: having it, finding it, losing it.  Mother Nagla struggles with her loss of faith in face of tragedy, her inability to match the piety of her mother and her best friend that increases her fear that it was a shortfall in herself that caused tragedy to befall her family.  Grandmother Ehsan is steeped in faith, perpetually murmuring prayers and waving incense, providing holy water for healing.  Her faith imbues her every action and is so genuine that it can tear down cultural walls but can't rescue her daughter's family from their grief and struggle.  Daughter Fatima is seeking her own path to faith, uncertain of whether to pursue her family's more Americanized ways or don the headscarves of her more religious friends.  Son Khaled is a different story completely.  Caught between the shame and treachery brought on by his brother's act and the expectations of a father whose hopes are now pinned upon him alone, Khaled takes refuge in studying monarch butterflies, how they migrate thousands of miles south to winter only to have a new generation of butterflies return north - a practice that seems to have parallels even in his own family.

Each of Hassib's characters is fleshed out and fully realized, from Khaled who is coming of age in the shadow of tragedy to his father, whose stubbornness makes him easy for readers to dislike, but his ultimate wish and goal to preserve the life and community he had striven so hard to attain, is ultimately sympathetic.  I wished for an ending that offered a bit more closure, but that should take nothing away from this book that seems in every way to be an authentic exploration of the immigrant experience, an honest portrayal of the Muslim faith, and a compelling picture of a broken family knitting themselves back together after tragedy.

(I received a copy of In the Language of Miracles from the publisher in exchange for review consideration.)