This isn’t the type of book I am naturally drawn to, and had it not been offered to me as an arc, I didn’t even request it, I probably would not have read it. So, to say that this young adult OWN voice 246 page post 9/11 war story had a lot to overcome for me personally, is putting it mildly. I gave in and decided to read it for the simple fact that I was curious to see what the narrative is in today’s literature, as we approach the 20 year anniversary of the attacks on US soil. The afterward is very clear that the agenda of the two authors, one an Afghan and the other a US veteran, was to show a personal view of growth and assumptions on both sides and how the future of Afghanistan needs to be rooted in education and stability. I think the book accomplished its goals, and made very clear how the terrorists first victims were their own people, and that extreme ideologies of the Taliban were and are still not reflective of the larger population. The pacing of the dual narratives, however, was a bit off to me, and I really felt that some of the major plot points didn’t get explored in a meaningful way, that they were simply glossed over and brushed aside to keep the book inline with the authors’ objectives. The book is not overly political, and the Muslim characters are religious and knowledgeable, but for a book that talked about how even in war the people, the soldiers, are the story, I wanted to see more internal wresting with choices and their outcomes, then what was offered.
The book is told in alternating view points, one is that of Baheer an Afghan boy living with his large extended family in Kabul next to a Taliban compound. The family is religious, Baheer’s grandfather, Baba Jan, is well read in poetry and religious text and often quotes the Quran by ayat and surah number. The family sells carpets, and often hides the latest movies or news recordings in the rolls, so that they can be brought home, the blackout shades pulled and the tapes enjoyed. They are fearful of being harassed for not having long enough beards, shaved heads, turbans and the like. Baheer and his brother Rahim do not enjoy school with the strict and abusive teachers. The talibs seem to touch them inappropriately and scold them harshly. Their older sister is not allowed to attend school and never has even though the family used to live in Pakistan where the boys enjoyed school. It doesn’t explain why they were there or why they returned. One uncle is assaulted by the Taliban and soon after, a news clip showing the attacks on 9/11 is secretly watched by the family. As a result they decide to move to Farah, in Western Afghanistan where Baba Jan has family and property, to be away from the impending US attacks and Taliban assaults.
Joe Killian is the other voice. When the book starts he is sitting in class, his senior year, when news about the attacks on the World Trade Center starts to break. He had joined the national guard that summer for the college money, and as his classmates sit glued to the televisions in Iowa, he is nervous that he is about to be called up to war. He doesn’t get called up that day, he graduates, and is studying journalism in college when the call finally comes. He is preparing for combat, but when he is deployed and discovers it is a reconstruction mission he is angry and annoyed. A year of helping what he terms barbarians, is not what he signed up for.
The majority of the book reads like a ‘day in the life’ of each of these two voices, as they adapt to life in Farah, as they deal with each other’s presence and as their friendship forces their assumptions to change. The interactions between Joe and Baheer show the power in getting to know someone to alter perceptions, and the threat of the Taliban on both the average citizen and the US forces on the ground as a unifying enemy to allow the friendship to grow.
The book concludes when Joe’s year of deployment is up, but really the authors’ notes at the end are a better conclusion to the real life friendship and growth of the two authors that resulted in the writing of the book
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the family sees the planes hitting the towers and is mortified at the brazen destruction and loss of life. They immediately start praying for the victims even as they realize they will be the recipients of the backlash. I like that it highlights where practicing Muslims and extremists differ, by having the Quran quoted and explained as opposed to the rhetoric the Taliban is spouting. Baba Jan’s manner for speaking the ayats is a bit awkward in that most people don’t in daily conversation source and reference their dialogues, but it does grow on you. I think the book is very simplistic in making the Taliban to unequivocally be the ‘bad guys’ without any context of how they gained traction. It talks about the Soviets, but I think it will leave the readers wondering where this group came from and why the Afghan people allowed it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nuances and complexities that are overlooked by such a simple narrative, and allow for an inaccurate picture to be formed.
I like that Baheer pushes back on Joe who thinks America is perfect and that Afghanistan is less than, by pointing out the flaws in American society as well as his own. I was ok with Baheer pushing the cultural limits to talk to a girl, it was innocent and I think understandable. My biggest concern is that I really felt that there needed to be more space on the page dedicated to understanding the repercussions of him being an informant to the Americans, and his brother passing on information to the Talibs. People were taken in to custody and injured and killed as a result of these boys’ actions and to just chalk it up to something to be forgiven, was not enough for me. I wanted them to hash it out and wallow in their choices, not forgive and move on so quickly. I also wanted to know more about their reconstruction efforts. It seemed rather minimal: relocating explosives, helping a burn victim, sending supplies to a school, I think in a year, that there would be more mixing with the people than the book would suggest. And finally, I felt like the sister not getting to go to school was handled as an obligation to address, not that any insight or understanding was really given to such a hot button issue.
The book is really slow and dragging at parts, I couldn’t tell you about any of the dozen or so soldiers that are mentioned, I don’t even recall any of their names. I think the book has a lot of potential, and perhaps it does shine in showing the effects of war and terrorism on the Afghan people. It held my attention while actively reading it, but I just as easily could have put it down and forgotten about it if I wasn’t under obligation to offer an opinion in exchange for an early copy.
There is language, stereotypes, physical abuse, sexual misconduct, death, killing, violence, acts of war, bloodshed, a crush. Upper middle school and high school can handle it.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t think I’d select this book as a book club selection because I’m not sure what would be gained from the book. The characters assumptions are challenged and evolve, but I think most minorities know that, getting to know someone is often the best way to have their image changed. I think the book still functions to make Americans feel better about invading Afghanistan, rather than have us question what the long term affects of our involvement have been.