Book Review: The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon (2016)

November 4th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A raw, unflinching, powerful, and very necessary book.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence.)

I find my notebook and pencil and I start to write. The letters flow from deep inside me without even a pause to worry about which way is which and where to put what. And my head fills with memories and stories from so long ago that fences weren’t even invented yet. Stories that haven’t even happened yet. Stories that the world won’t see for years and years. All those stories swirl through my head, but I suck them all in and tell them to wait. Because first I have to write the most important story of them all. The story which isn’t even a story. The story that has to be told, no matter how hard it is to tell.

Ten-year-old Subhi was born in an Australian detention center. Originally from Burma (Myanmar), his Maá and older sister Queeny (Noor) were forcibly removed by soldiers, put on a boat and compelled to set sail at gunpoint. His ba, a poet, was imprisoned by the government.

Their offense? Subhi and his family are Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority living in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. In the Author’s Note, Fraillon explains that “the United Nations and Amnesty International have declared the Rohingya to be one of the most persecuted people on earth, and a recent investigation by Al Jazeera News suggested that the government of Myanmar is committing genocide in its treatment of the Rohingya. The Rohingya are being hunted into extinction.”

For the past decade, they’ve been in limbo: unable to return to their native country, but unwelcome where they washed up. Like the United States, Australia has a policy of mandatory detention; refugees are treated much like criminals.

In order to keep his mind from turning to “mush,” Subhi clings to stories – the familiar, well-worn tales of his family, and new ones belonging to the nine hundred other refugees who live in the detention center alongside him. Especially cherished are those stories dreamed up by his ba; stories of the Night Sea, which sometimes washes over Subhi’s camp as he dreams, leaving cryptic treasures in its wake: A small statue of a knight. A little blue toy car. A sketch of a thousand birds in flight. A green coin rimmed with black smudges. Subhi believes that these are messages, sent by his ba – and that, one day, he’ll come in person to rescue them from this non-existence.

Jimmie lives up the road from the detention center. While she and her brother Jonah have explored most of the abandoned houses in their defunct mining town, the aura of sadness and despair that permeates the center has kept them away. But on the third anniversary of her mother’s death, overcome with a strange feeling of restlessness and curiosity, Jimmie sneaks out of her house and into the center. Also unable to sleep, Subhi is the only witness to this intruder, the ghostly girl with fiery red hair.

For a spell, he thinks he dreamed her up. That is, until she returns, her mother’s diary tucked under her arm. Jimmie can’t read, but Suhbi can – and he’s desperate for some new reading material. And so the pair dive into the story of Jimmie’s great-great-great-grandmother Anka, a girl who was born from an eggshell and rescued from a well. A girl who, like Subhi, was driven from her homeland at gunpoint.

Thus marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship – and also heralds tragedy and transformation, both inside the camp and without.

The Bone Sparrow is…well, it’s spectacular. It’s raw and unflinching, yet gentle enough for younger readers. Even though this is a middle-grade book, it speaks to audiences of all ages, and with force and beauty and power. Books like this are why you see such an hostile backlash against calls for greater representation and diversity in literature: Words matter. Stories are powerful. With reading comes empathy; with empathy comes compassion and change. Books like The Bone Sparrow can change hearts and minds and (hopefully) actions. If this book doesn’t make you blubber and cry and bleed, then I just don’t know.

The conditions in Subhi’s camp are deplorable. There are food shortages, water shortages, and doctor shortages. What little food they do get is bad: past-date, filled with bugs, spoiled enough to give the whole camp food poisoning. (Subhi reports that he even found a human tooth in his gruel once.) They live in the desert, in tents without air conditioning, and suffer from “dust sickness.” The kids do not attend school, nor is a teacher brought in to tutor them. Subhi only knows how to read because Queeny taught him – along with any other camp kid wishing to learn. The reading material is sparse, and as for toys? The children race lice and cockroaches for fun. Self-harming and suicide attempts are common enough that there’s a whole section of the camp (“Ford”) dedicated to inmates who need special protection – from themselves or others. Single men are segregated in their own area (“Alpha”), but it’s not unusual for boys to be thrown in there five or ten years ahead of their time. Abuse runs rampant, both among the inmates (see: Alpha and Ford) and, more commonly, the guards.

“Coming here is a bit like waking up from a nightmare and then finding out that you aren’t awake at all,” Queeny told me one time when we saw a boy try to hurt himself.

You might wonder how much of this is true, or accurately reflects reality. According to the author, “The conditions I have described in this book have all been taken from reports of life in Australian detention centers.” Given how we treat our prisoners in the U.S. – i.e., American citizens – this sounds totally believable. Refugees are like prisoners, but with even fewer rights.

In addition to illustrating the conditions in detention centers, Fraillon does a lovely job of humanizing some of the people imprisoned within their walls. Despite his predicament, Subhi manages to retain some of his innocence and optimism; he’s a sweet and caring boy who you just want to enfold in your arms and never let go. Queeny and Eli are equally interesting: intelligent and brave, with an uncanny sense of how the world works (uncanny because they’ve been removed from it for so long). Queeny is often presented as a mean and annoying older sister – after all, this is Subhi’s story – yet she’s anything but, as Suhbi will eventually learn. Suffering from catatonic depression, Maá is mostly removed from the story, though we are treated to some lovely memories of her courtesy of Subhi.

Jimmie is charming too, and through her, we get a glimpse of how the outside world views the detention center. Mostly they are invisible, and that’s the point. The government (corporation?) deliberately constructed the center on the outskirts of an isolated mining town so that few people would know of its existence: out of sight, out of mind. When Queeny and Eli hatch their plans, their primary goal is simply to compel the outside world to acknowledge their existence. To know that they’re there, they’re suffering, and they matter.

Jimmie looks at me and nods. “I know,” she says. “I hear you.”

But when Jimmie’s community does think of people like Subhi, it’s often with jealousy. In terms of the economy, things aren’t exactly coming up roses, and a lot of the families in Jimmie’s town are struggling (her own included). In their eyes, the refugees have got it good: three square meals a day, free housing and medical care, even trucks packed with shiny new bikes for the kids. (As to where they’ll ride ’em, it’s anyone’s guess.) Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. But it’s not like anyone would know the difference, since they couldn’t visit the detention center even if they wanted to. Nope, the people in charge want the community to remain ignorant and apathetic; this makes it all too easy to scapegoat the refugees and pit various disadvantaged groups against one another, so that they don’t unite and mobilize against those who profit off of oppression.

Buy this for your school or your library; for your son or daughter or niece or nephew; for your Trump-voting mom or your dad who’s “sick of all these people coming over here.” Put one in the hands of every stranger you meet on the street. This is a timely and necessary book, and one that everyone and anyone can benefit from reading.

Love trumps hate.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Ten-year-old Subhi was born in a Australian detention center. His Maá and older sister Queeny (Noor) have been imprisoned there for 10-odd years. They are Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority living in Buddhist-majority Myanmar (Burma). According to the author’s note, “the United Nations and Amnesty International have declared the Rohingya to be one of the most persecuted people on earth, and a recent investigation by Al Jazeera News suggested that the government of Myanmar is committing genocide in its treatment of the Rohingya. The Rohingya are being hunted into extinction.”

His ba, a poet, was imprisoned by the government, while his Maá and Queeny were forcibly removed from the country. Subhi clings to the hope that his ba is alive and will one day return for them – but, unbeknownst to him, his ba is dead. A year prior, old Asiya arrived at the camp bearing news of his ba’s death, which she witnessed personally. Maá and Queeny decided to keep the news from him.

About this time, Maá lapsed into a deep, even catatonic, depression. She spends most of the day in bed and rarely eats. Near the end of the book, she’s placed on suicide watch (HRAT Watch).

Through this, we learn about previous suicides and suicide attempts at the camp:

Like Saleem, who used every bit of money he could find to buy a boat to save his family because bombs kept falling from the sky and killing everyone he knew. He left his country with his whole family but arrived here on his own. He even paid extra because he was promised a good boat with a motor and a roof and life jackets to fit his little girls, but all he was given was a rubber boat with no life jackets and a promise that the seas were good and calm at this time of year. That promise wasn’t any good either, and he said that now he’d lost everything he couldn’t see why he had to live any more. He was put on HRAT Watch but it didn’t do any good.

Mostly it’s grown-ups who go on Watch, but sometimes kids do too. Especially kids who have seen so much stuff on their way here that they can’t get it out of their heads.

Such as the unnamed nine-year-old whose paperwork said he was nineteen. He was moved into Alpha with the men (who presumably abused him) and, when he finally came out, his brain was “mush” (Subhi uses with term a lot). “He tried to bleed himself out on the fence” and was moved to Ford.

It’s also not uncommon for young kids to self-harm; for example, by repeatedly hitting their heads on the walls or floors. Subhi himself went through a period of this when he was younger.

The center houses 900 refugees, though the only specific ethnic group that’s named is the Rohingya.

The detention center is divided into several different compounds, each housing a specific group of people; e.g., Family is for kids and family units; Alpha is for single young men. Beta Compound, for the “troublemakers,” is basically isolation: a form of torture. The Ford Compound is for at-risk people: “the place you get put if you need to be kept more safe than usual because someone keeps on hurting you, or if your brain gets so mushed from being here that you keep on hurting yourself.”

Subhi’s friend Nasir is one of the oldest residents; he also seems to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. He’s missing one leg; he did have a prosthetic, but the soldiers took it away upon his arrival:

Nasir says he doesn’t mind so much about his leg. He says it is worse for people like Fara, who is deaf and had her hearing aid taken, so that now she can’t hear the memories people tell each other to keep themselves alive in here. Or the ones like Remi, who needs medicine every day and had that taken away by the Jackets, and even the letter from his doctor destroyed. Remi has these fits and headaches that make him scream so hard it cuts through your thinking.

Subhi’s best friend/adopted brother, Eli, was smuggled across the border in a truck stuffed with sixty-seven people and not enough air. The driver refused to stop and, by the time they arrived at their destination, Eli was the only passenger still breathing. His younger brother was among the dead. His mother was already gone, killed by soldiers.

One of the guards, Beaver, is missing an eye; an inmate attacked him with a hammer. Beaver is cruel and abusive to the inmates. In the protest/riot, he attacks and kills Eli.

Red-headed Jimmie, the girl from the outside, lost her mother three years ago:

“My mum’s dead,” she says. “She got this fever one time and something in her brain just popped, that’s how the doctors said. And that was it. She was just dead, sitting right there on the bathroom floor.”

It’s on the third anniversary of her death that Jimmie decides to finally see what’s going on in the detention center down the road for herself.

Jimmie’s town is poor and mostly abandoned, ever since the mine shut down. Her father’s work often takes him away for days at a time, leaving Jimmie mostly unsupervised. She only sporadically attends school and cannot read.

During her trips to the center, Jimmie brings her mother’s diary so that Subhi can read it to her. It tells the story of Anka, her great-great-great-grandmother, who was born from an eggshell and found in a well. She was blind and, like Subhi, was driven from her homeland by soldiers.

Animal-friendly elements: Kind-hearted Subhi, the narrator of the story, gives some of his meager rations to the rats who live in the detention center. He generally sees them as non-threatening, even when they “nibble” on his figures while he’s sleeping. Some older boys in the Family tent made traps to kill them; this disturbed Subhi so much that his best friend/adopted brother, Eli, made them stop. After Eli was mistakenly sent to the Alpha Compound, about five years ahead of schedule, the boys ganged up on Subhi. Not only did they start trapping the rats again, but they forced him to participate:

I don’t tell Eli that those boys are already making their rat traps again. I don’t tell Eli that after those boys took my shoes and my pants and our packages, they walked me to a trap. I don’t tell Eli how those boys pushed me right up close and showed me a little baby rat, its eyes not even open yet, sniffing around for its maá. I don’t tell Eli how those boys said I was to kill it.

I told those boys to jam it. I told those boys that they could beat me with sticks as much as they wanted and I still wouldn’t kill a thing. I told those boys that they weren’t worth spit and then I went and broke all their traps so they’ll never build them again.

Except I didn’t. Except I couldn’t. I don’t tell Eli. And after, when I wiped that blood and fur off my hands and on to the dirt, the rats, all hidden in the shadows, watched me and shook their heads and turned away.

 

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