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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Bone Sparrow, written by Zana Fraillon. Orion, Hachette. 2016. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"Some of the oldies ask me to draw them things. Sometimes they ask me to draw them things I haven't ever seen, and they have to talk and talk until I can see in my head what they have in their rememberings. Queeny says they only do it is so that I shut up for a bit and stop pestering them for more stories. She reckons the only time I'm ever quiet is when I'm being told a story."

Let's begin November with a novel. I have read some pretty amazing ones this past month, and want to share them with you. To say this one held my attention from first page to last is definitely understating the impact it had on me!

I knew absolutely nothing about the Rohingya people of Burma. I am not happy with myself for that. After reading this compelling and heartbreaking story of Subhi and his family, I wanted to know more. That is the power that books have for all of us - they teach us about the world and its ways. They make our hearts ache and soar, and they provide windows into the lives of others.

Subhi's family is persecuted for their religion and forced to leave their village home. Their journey ends in an Australian detention camp, where Subhi is born. Ten years later, it is the only life he knows. To say it is not a good experience is putting it mildly. Subhi loves to hear his mother's stories of life in Burma, but she is slowly losing her will to live and the stories have become few and far between as her health declines. The family lives in hope that Subhi's father will find them there.

Despite the abusive guards, the terrible food, and the hopelessness felt by so many, Subhi does find friends. Each helps to sustain him and his sense of hope for a better future. It does not look promising. Each of these friends is worthy of the young boy's admiration. Harvey, one of the guards, is as kind as he can be when no one else is watching. Eli, also a refugee, is an older boy whose tireless attempts to make things better have an impact on his young friend. Subhi believes that the Great Sea is bringing signs from his father of better times. He dreams his dream often.

Then, there's Jimmie. Jimmie is an illiterate girl who lives outside the detention center fence. The two meet by chance, and Jimmie begins coming into the camp so that Subhi can read the stories that her dead mother has left in a notebook for her. She cannot read them herself. Several chapters of the book are written to focus on her life when she is not at the camp.

Subhi's narrative is strong and personal. Through his eyes, we are witness to moments of loss, anger, fear, and injustice. We also see tiny glimpses of love, hope and redemption ... and we come to know that stories do heal, even in the most brutal conditions.

This is not a easy book to read. It is quite lovely as well. It made me cry, and smile. It caused me to ache for those who live where there is no freedom, where conditions are deplorable, and where happiness is a distant dream. The friendships are strong, the characters unforgettable, their story eye-opening. Subhi, Eli, and Jimmie share personal stories that have helped to make their lives bearable. That is the true message of the book for me - the need for stories in our lives.

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