I really, really wanted to participate in the Brooklyn Book Festival. Like, from the minute anybody involved with The Boneshaker started thinking about events and appearances, I wanted badly to be part of it. Apart from the fact that it’s a tremendously awesome event, I’ve lived in Brooklyn for almost ten years now (a fact that staggers my mind every time I acknowledge it) and I have discovered that I love my borough desperately. So when I found out that I had been booked for a panel this year, I was (and am still) over the moon, and although I have been really lame about posting to this site over the summer, it seems only right to take a minute and talk about it. Which brings me to the two absolutely amazing writers I’m going to be sharing a panel with, and today’s Subway Lit Special Edition Double Feature! Before I get carried away by the awesome fiction I’m about to rave about, don’t forget to come see Mitali Perkins, Francisco X. Stork and me tomorrow, Sunday, September 12, at 4pm at the Youth Stoop for our panel, “Making It.”
Bamboo People (Mitali Perkins)
Although I have been aware of Mitali Perkins for some time, I had yet to read any of her work. I knew Bamboo People had to do with the political situation in Burma, something I knew basically nothing about; being mostly a fantasy and sci fi reader, although I’d heard great things about it, it just wasn’t my usual read. But I started it last Friday on my way home from work and finished it Tuesday on the way in. For context, that means I read it in four subway trips, or a little under three hours. I was pretty riveted. Among other things, Bamboo People is paced just beautifully. Here’s one way you know a book is paced beautifully: when what seems like five minutes after you start reading it, you look up and realize that, not only are you a third of the way through the book, but you’ve missed your subway stop.
The first half of Bamboo People is told from the point of view of Chiko, a Burmese boy at the head of his tiny household since his father, a doctor, was arrested for resisting the government. When he goes to apply for a teaching position advertised in the paper, Chiko finds himself press-ganged into the military. Also in his little group is Tai, a street boy desperate to get home to his sister. With Tai’s help, Chiko slowly begins to learn the skills necessary to survive military training under the brutal captain. But, of course, training has to end eventually, and despite all he has learned, when Chiko finds himself part of a group heading into the Jungle in search of a stash of weapons held by a group of Karenni rebels, things go horribly wrong. The second half of the book is narrated by Tu Reh, the Karenni boy who finds Chiko after the Burmese boy’s mission goes off the rails. Tu Reh’s family and their neighbors are refugees, their village having been burned to the ground by Burmese soldiers, and Tu Reh’s world is dominated by hatred of the Burmese. There are voices of moderation (Tu Reh’s father, a young healer and her grandfather), but they are far and few between. If Chiko’s story is about learning to stay alive, Tu Reh’s is about learning to survive hatred. For those readers who, like me, enter into the world of the book knowing little or nothing about Burma’s volatile political situation and its many, many displaced and maligned ethnic groups, Mitali has thoughtfully included some background material at the back of the book. But it’s not necessary to know anything about it beforehand to be drawn deeply into the world that puts the protagonists, Chiko and Tu Reh, on their collision course, and to come to care deeply about both of them.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (Francisco X. Stork)
Here’s another thing I haven’t read a lot about: surviving cancer. Is this me admitting that I shy away from real-world concerns in my reading? Maybe. I started reading The Last Summer of the Death Warriors for the same reason I finally picked up Bamboo People: I knew I was going to meet the author. I wound up plowing through it and immediately ordering Mr. Stork’s previous novel, Marcelo in the Real World, and plowing through that one, too. Total reading time for Last Summer of the Death Warriors: 3 hours (two subway rides and one very late night sitting up in bed getting dirty looks from my husband for keeping the light on until 2am). Once again, I could not put the book down, and I immediately made a mental note of at least three people I desperately want to give this book to. I loved it, plain and simple.
Pancho Sanchez is a very private, very angry kid. He’s lost his mother, his father, and most recently his sister Rosa, who the police claim died of unknown natural causes. But Pancho knows differently, and even if it means he spends the rest of his life in prison (a sacrifice he’s perfectly willing, even eager, to make) he’s determined to avenge Rosa’s death. When he’s dropped off at St. Anthony’s, the orphanage that will be his new home, all he cares about is revenge. But for some reason, D.Q., a very talkative Anglo kid preparing himself to die of a rare brain cancer, chooses Pancho to be his new best friend. D.Q. is also busy writing the Death Warrior Manifesto, a treatise on how to live fully even in the face of death. Despite Pancho’s efforts to extricate himself from D.Q. and his alien world-view and stay focused on avenging Rosa, he winds up accompanying Pancho to Albuquerque for an experimental treatment, where it becomes increasingly difficult to keep himself aloof.
I write fantasy. I can write a story in which a little girl saves the world. But the thing about both Bamboo People and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is the conflicts they present can, at best, be resolved only temporarily. The hope we get from them is the hope that, for the characters we have come to love and believe in, things might end well, and that drop in the bucket might be the one that tips the scales toward a larger peace, a broader quality of life with depth and dignity. Maybe. If all the stars line up right. But even if Chiko survives training, even if he survives the aftermath of his failed mission, even if Tu Reh overcomes the hatred he has come to understand as the natural state of mind when faced with a Burmese soldier, they still have to return to a world in which ethnic cleansing occurs–and so do we. If Pancho chooses the path of forgiveness, if D.Q. finds a way to weather his final storms in the manner he desperately wants to live, they still exist in a world in which cancer kills. In which girls and boys die senselessly and cannot be avenged. In which heartbroken survivors succumb to revenge instincts anyway. That’s our world, too. But the truth is that we need stories that confront us with the sadness and the injustice of the world in which we live, then force us to love and hope despite what we know. We close the book determined to challenge the reality we return to, because how can we do less? It takes a brilliant writer to create works that accomplish what these books do, and to make reading those stories a moving and satisfying experience. I hope you will join me and come to meet these two brilliant writers and hear them talk about these wonderful books. I am richer for having read them. You will be, too.