This 168 page young adult book from Daybreak Press focuses on a small Muslim family in Texas, that has their own stresses and interpersonal relationships, but are thrown in to a whirlwind when the father of the family returns home from a medical mission to Syria and finds himself in the psych ward broken and troubled. The effects each of the character’s struggles have on them as well as those they care about, makes for a haunting yet relatable read for fourteen year olds and up.
The Jamal family is made up of Hannah and her older high school aged sister Noreen and their physician parents Dahlia and Adam. Hannah runs track and is more introverted in handling friends and her father’s life altering condition. Noreen on the other hand is ultra organized and rational in her approach to life, much more like her OB mother. To cope with the stress of her father’s return she commits herself to more clubs at school and staring at her phone.
Hannah doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends, and when the track team understands that Hannah’s dad is dead and Hannah doesn’t correct them until later, her comfortable acquaintances turn on her and she will have to learn to stand up for herself and use her voice in the course of the book. Noreen’s character arc is a bit more dramatic as her involvement in yearbook club brings new people in to her life, mainly a boy, who might not be as a genuine in his goals as she is, and thus their climax results in a trip to the police station. Dahlia has a close friend, and Adam has a few as well, but the story really stays pretty streamline in exploring the relationships of the family and how little things and big things affect them all.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the book takes on a serious issue like PTSD and is framed in such reality. The scene where the dad blurs his past memories with the current real happenings, is done very well. It conveys how fractured his brain is while showing the stress his situation lends to the mood of the home is powerful. There is also a very real situation of attempted physical and sexual assault that occurs when Noreen finds herself in a position with a male classmate who attempts to take advantage of her. The book holds back in details, and she is able to defend herself, keeping the book clean, while still implying what his intent was, and how fortunate she is to get away.
More superficially, but also more relatable is the girls bickering and fighting and pushing each other’s buttons, and the mom trying to help, but is alas is frequently at a loss at what to do with them. The situations the girls face at school are probable and relatable that I think a lot of middle school and high school readers will see themselves trying to balance extra curricular activities, friends, finding a quite place to pray and keeping their hijabs coordinating. The family is Muslim and they dress the part, talk the talk, and pray together regularly. Islam is very present, but not preachy, it is just what the characters believe and what they use to shape their view of many of the tests they are facing.
There are a few hiccups that are worth noting, but don’t overly deter for my appreciation of the story. I struggled with the writing style in the first few chapters. It took a bit to feel a connection to the characters and get what was going on sorted out. It is written in 3rd person omniscient (I believe, it’s been a while) with each chapter more or less focusing on one of the four main characters. As a result a handful of times the narrative gets awkward in explaining what one of the characters is doing or thinking, because the focus is on someone else, or the timeline overlaps a bit. It doesn’t happen an awful lot, but the book is under 200 pages, so it is annoying that it happens at all, let alone more than once.
Story wise the characters seem oddly isolated. The book tells us how small the town is, and shows us how everyone knows the parents regularly, the girls seem to be pretty lonely. There isn’t any warmth from the schools or neighbors in helping them deal with their dad coming home so wounded. In a town they have lived in for so long, this seems off to me. Also if the town is so small, and the family so religious, there is an imam who visits once, you’d think there would be more of an Islamic community presence for the mom and girls to find support from.
There is violence in the remembering of what happened in Syria. There is some Islamaphobic talk as Hannah endures some verbal bullying and the attempted physical and sexual assault on Noreen.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would consider this as a possible middle school book club choice. It tackless some big things, and uses Islamic boundaries to talk about mental illness and sexual violence which is a huge plus when addressing our youth. Noreen isn’t in a relationship or even overtly infatuated with the guy who puts her in a compromising situation. But even if she was doing something “wrong” what he did is not ok, and the fact that the authorities believe her, and she plans to discuss it with her mom, and she is not further victimized by speaking out, is something our kids need to see and understand.
There are discussion questions at the end and I think males and females will benefit from reading and discussing this book. Unfortunately, and possibly the only other disappointment in the book is the price. Nearly twenty bucks for a short YA paperback book makes it hard to buy classroom sets for such activities, and I’m sure will even keep the avid reader debating whether they should purchase it or not.