I was thrilled to win a copy of Mitali Perkins' Bamboo People from the Nancy Coffee Literary Blog in September. Due to an overwhelming workload it took me weeks to start reading. I have a colleague who is a strong advocate against the military junta in Burma (also called Myanmar, but Ms. Perkins notes that the Burmese call their country Burma). I knew a tiny bit about the issues in this country, but only a little. I loved the book.
Tiny synopsis: Chiko, a studious young boy, is conscripted into the Burmese army against his will. Accustomed to books and tutoring he is ill-prepared to deal with his new harsh life. Tu Reh is Karenni, an ethnic minority, whose village was destroyed by the Burmese army. Tu Reh now lives in a refugee camp on the Thai border. When the two meet in the jungle, each has to question the roles they play in modern-day Burma.
My synopsis does not do the book justice. I struggle to describe the book without giving a lot away.
As I say, I knew a little about Burma/Myanmar before reading this book, but not much. I knew a military junta was in place. I knew they kept strict control of the population. I have also heard about the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi, the nobel-prize winning activist. I didn't really understand how ethnicity fit into the equation.
This book strikes an interesting balance between informing you about the issues of Burma and just telling a story and getting you to care about the characters. In fact, Ms. Perkins does very little in the way of describing the conflict, or going into detail about the history of the country. As befits the characters, they don't sit around describing their country's history or go into "how we got into this situation". Characters in real life don't do this. Instead, she crafts this story-- a beautiful story-- and the backdrop is what we recognize as a society devoid of choice, democracy, and freedom. It's so well done.
Her writing is spare, not flowery, almost evocative of the bare surroundings and stilted society. I don't want to get all purple prose in describing it, so instead I'll say the way she writes the story perfectly complements the subject matter.
So, can you tell I'm a big fan? I couldn't be more thrilled with winning the book and getting to read it!
I am now thinking about how I can fit it into my introductory Political Science class. Last year I had the students read Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder, the story of a Burundi refugee in America. The class used to be called American Government, and now it's called Power and Politics in America. It's primarily about (duh) American government, but I also like to encourage my students to think about things from another perspective. That's why I chose the Kidder book before. I wanted my students to see American society through the eyes of someone completely different. Someone escaping genocide and trying to live the American dream.
Now I am planning to use Bamboo People in this class. I hope it will help them really understand some of the rights we take for granted.
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