As every storyteller knows, it is the tales of individual people which bring real events to life. The sanitised vocabulary and politicised angles of the news can make the realities and complexities of recent world events difficult for young adults to access.
Set in Afghanistan in the months following September 11th and endorsed by Amnesty International, here is a book to contribute to a better understanding. Alternate chapters give us the stories of two heroines. Najmah, an Afghan girl, sees her father and brother conscripted to the Taliban, and her mother and baby brother killed in an American air raid. Lost and alone, she begins the dangerous journey through the mountains to Pakistan, where she hopes to find her family again. Elaine, an American woman, is also alone. Living in Pakistan after converting to Islam and marrying an Afghan doctor, she has not heard from him since he left to establish a hospital. Whilst she waits she teaches refugee children under the persimmon tree in her garden.
The two different viewpoints work well. From Najmah we get a picture of everyday life in rural Afghanistan. Staples draws on her experiences as a UPI reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan to paint a picture of day-to-day life rich in fascinating and evocative details. Set against this normality the accounts of the death of Najmah’s mother and baby brother are particularly powerful and moving. From Elaine (known as Nusrat) we get a view of the contrasts between Western and Middle Eastern culture. By giving us an insight into two hearts and minds Staples also shows us the similarities, in a wonderful celebration of our common humanity.
When at last Najmah and Nusrat do find each other, their shared feelings of anxiety and loss, plus their shared interest in the stars, gives them the comfort and strength they need. Don’t expect a happy ending, Staples is a realist. But she shows that hard truths can be accepted, with courage and dignity.