Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins
Set in modern Burma, this novel is the story of two teen boys on opposite sides of the conflict between the Burmese and the Karenni, one of Burma’s ethnic minorities. Chiko’s father has been arrested for opposing the Burmese government. Now Chiko and his mother have no money to survive on, so Chiko heads out to be tested for a teaching position. But the test was a trap, and Chiko is taken into the Burmese army training to become a soldier. There he uses his wits to survive, befriending a street boy, who knows much more about fighting and survival than he does. When the time comes to allow his friend to head to the jungle on a dangerous mission, Chiko steps up and offers himself instead. Through that mission, he is rescued by Tu Reh, a Karenni teen, who has hated the Burmese ever since they burned down his village. Now Chiko’s life is in the hands of Tu Reh, who sees him only as the enemy. This book is about the bravery it takes to make decisions that turn boys into men, learning that compassion is the only way forward.
Beautifully written, Perkins has captured a complicated situation in a way that young readers will not only understand but will be drawn to. Rather than using alternating chapters for the two points of view, Perkins tells the first part of the book from Chiko’s point of view and then Tu Reh enters in the second half. This lends a great cohesiveness to the story, allowing readers to view the conflict from both sides, understand both, and at the same time get enough in-depth time with each character to see through their eyes.
Perkins excels at depicting foreign cultures through sounds, scents, and tastes. Food is used to convey the differences and similarities of cultures. There are no long paragraphs of description here, instead readers are treated to details woven into the story that bring the entire book to life. This is done with a skill that makes it seem effortless.
Her characterizations are also done with the same grace, allowing readers to slowly learn about the two boys, learn about the cultures, and slowly be exposed to the horror that teens on both sides of the conflict live with. The darker parts of battle and imprisonment are dealt with obliquely, allowing readers to bring their own level of understanding to the atrocities being committed. Again, this is a testimony to the skill of Perkins’ writing.
Highly recommended, this book takes the horrors of war and package them in a piercingly beautiful story. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from copy received from Charlesbridge.
Also reviewed by many, many other bloggers. Check out a list of them on Mitali’s blog.