Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy
This book may receive my “most amazing accomplishment” award for the year. In this book, Trent Reedy, former English teacher and military reservist who was called into active duty during the Bush wars, manages to convincingly tell a wonderful story in the voice of a thirteen-year-old girl. A Muslim thirteen-year-old girl. A Muslim thirteen-year-old girl living in modern-day Afghanistan. A Muslim thirteen-year-old girl living in modern-day Afghanistan who was born with a cleft palate.
Personally, I think being able to capture the voice of someone so different from the author is an incredible achievement. But I think Reedy got Zulaika, the narrator of the book, just right. And this is only his first novel!
I will also admit that I had to be won over by this book. Having read the description of the book, I didn’t think I wanted to hear the tale of a disfigured girl leading a primitive existence while living through the struggles of war-torn Afghanistan. But within just the first chapter or so, I was so sucked into the story of this alien world that I couldn’t stop reading until I finished the book late in the night.
Reedy does a great job of conveying a lifestyle that is so foreign to most of us here in the US. And I love how neutrally he is able to present this world, even though some of the values and traditions run so counter to ours (Reedy is also an American). He does a particularly good job of not making either side--the US or the Afghan--be good guys or bad guys, but rather the mixed-up combination of both that we all truly are.
So, for example, the Americans in the book can be unintentionally terrifying, wildly inappropriate, culturally insensitive, or arrogantly intrusive. On the whole, though, they want to help. The Afghans, on the other hand, can be cruel, violent, chauvinistic, callous, and opportunistic. On the whole, though, they love their families and their country, and just want to make a better life for themselves and their community.
So this is a really good book to learn about life in contemporary Afghanistan. But it also deals with the universal themes of dealing with family and finding one's own identity that adolescents all struggle with, not matter where they live.