I probably should not have read this so close to the book Wanting Mor, as it too is about a girl in Afghanistan, and with a cleft lip none the less. The similarities fortunately pretty much end there. Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy is a fictional story that sprung from his own military service in Farah, Afghanistan and brief encounter with a girl named Zulaikha, who he and his comrades pulled money together to fund her transport for surgery. He clearly states in his Author’s Note that he had preconceived notions on Afghanis when he deployed and how those changed as he got to know the people, he also states his disadvantage in writing the book as he is neither an Afghan or a girl. Such honesty and care with the subject matter shines through the pages and creates a glimpse at everyday life for the characters without being overshadowed by judgement. The first 50 pages or so of the 264 total are a bit overwhelming, but if the reader plugs through, the rest is smooth sailing and hard to put down. It has an AR level of 4.6 although there are a few items mentioned in passing that would make me nervous to let someone that young read it. A main story plot is the marraige of Zulaikha’s sister Zeynab and preparations include her receiving marital advise that makes her blush, and following the wedding night, a cloth with Zeynab’s blood is brought to Zulaikha’s family. No explanation is given and many readers may just brush over it, however, if asked, it could be awkward to explain to a fourth grader. Additionally during a conversation between Zulaikha and Zeynab, Zeynab says about some of her marriage difficulties, “Every night. . .He wants me to have a son, but I don’t know, , ,”. Definitely something to consider when recommending this book to someone younger.
Thirteen-year-old Afghani girl, Zulaikha, has a tough life. Born with a cleft lip and having lost her mother to the Taliban she spends her days with her older sister Zeynab caring for her two younger brothers, prepparing food for her father and older brother, and constantly being berrated by her step-mother. Set in a post Taliban setting, Zulaikha stumbles across a woman in town that remembers her as a child and used to teach her mother. Drawn to Meena, Zulaikha begins fullfilling her mother’s dream by meeting secretly with Meena to learn how to read and right and understand the poetry of her homeland. Things really start to look up as the American army rolls in and hires her father, a welder, on some of their new buildings, and offers to fund reconstructive surgery for her lip. Arrangements are also made for her sister to marry a prominent man in the community. However, things don’t go exactly as planned, and Zulaikha and her family must evaluate what they want and how much they mean to each other.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The story doesn’t assume anything about the characters or society, American and Afghan alike, which to me seems authentic. It doesn’t feel as if stereotypes are perpetuated or intentionally broken down, there is simply diversity of thought, opportunity and action. The book doesn’t shy away from American arrogance (offering the Muslim character’s pork and shaking hands with those of the opposite gender), nor does it make them seem cold hearted (they are genuinely helping Zulaikha’s family), similarily the Afghan men are loving to their wives and children, but doemstic violence is also shown. Some of the Afghan women are educated and independent others are illiterate and dependent. I like that the characters are religious, and hopeful that Allah will provide what is best for them. As the characters put their trust in Allah, and endure with sabr (patience), the reader too is relieved at the ending which is both cathartic and sweet.
Reference to married life, domestic violence
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Depending on the audience this book could be a GREAT book club book, it would probably need parental consent for the few items mentioned regarding marital life, but I think middle school girls would gain appreciation for their own lives and opportunities after reading about Zulaikha.
The author’s website: http://www.trentreedy.com/book-witd.html
Interview with the Author and his Publisher http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/downloads/printable/49-FE2-CaseStudyWritingMulticulturalFiction.html
The book includes an introdction by Katherine Paterson (Author of Bridge to Terabithia and numerous other books), a pronunciation guide, a glossary, an author’s note, acknowledgements, information about the poetry used in the book, and recommended reading about Afghanistan.