CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 18. . . .January 11, 2013
Sharon E. McKay.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2012.
184 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $21.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-430-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-431-1 (hc.).
Arab-Israeli conflict-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Rob Bittner.
"You sound like one of those stupid phone-in shows. Does that mean that the only way to love Israel is to hate Palestine? Or the only way to be a good Israeli is to hate Palestinians? Is that what is supposed to bind us together—hatred?" Suddenly Alina looked tired, really tired. She was tiny to begin with but now she seemed to be shrinking, almost deflating! Sam stopped himself from saying anything more.
"Sam, don't be mad. But don't you get it, I mean how they feel? Leaving their land, their farms, their homes when it was decided that this country was going to be Israel? I was just thinking, how would you like it if your family had to run from your house to avoid a war you didn't want, and then you couldn't go back afterward?"
When Yusuf and Sam, two teenage boys, end up in the same hospital room, their lives quickly become overwhelmingly complicated by thousands of years of political and social turmoil: Yusuf is Palestinian, and Sam is Israeli. When the boys escape from their authoritative Russian nurse in order to have coffee with Alina, a cancer-ridden girl in another wing of the hospital, they begin to talk about leaving the hospital in order to visit the Old City. As they set out on their adventure, the boys begin to realize how difficult their short trip will be, especially since Sam is suffering from a leg injury which threatens to end in amputation, and Yusuf has lost an eye and is experiencing the complications of an infection. Not only that, but their ethnic differences threaten them from the start. Within Israeli territory, Yusuf is in danger of deportation or worse, and within Palestinian territory, Sam is in danger of violent attack or excommunication.
As they venture through the city of Jerusalem to the Old City in search of a candy store to get caramels for their friend Alina, the boys find themselves at the mercy of adults wherever they go. When they enter a Palestinian neighbourhood, Sam and Yusuf learn the value of trust. When they help out a man from Texas, they learn to value human kindness, that is, until the man thinks he has learned the truth about Sam's religious and cultural affiliations. Together, Sam and Yusuf travel and pontificate on their differences and similarities, learning about humanity and the dangers of holding grudges based on propaganda, rather than trust and humility.
Telling the story with sensitivity and humour, McKay brings to life, through the young men, both the dangerous and precarious situation in Israel, and the value of friendship in the face of crisis and deep-seated cultural instability. For the most part, the book is very smoothly written, with strong characters and factual elements. While the plot is coherent and the overarching storyline is well-conceived, I was not fully able to avoid distraction as the narrative style is rather different than I am perhaps used to. There is confusion amidst certain chapters as the concentration of the narrative voice changes between Yusuf and Sam quite rapidly at times. Even with this, however, McKay does a fantastic job of working within a very difficult area of literary work, namely historical fiction, which in this case so closely mirrors nonfiction in a number of ways.
The novel as a whole represents the complexity of living in the middle east, befriending someone who is supposed to be an enemy, though for no reason other than history and expectation. Yusuf and Sam, however, represent that possibility of creating ties within friendship. Though the ending is wrapped up rather neatly, the rest of the text is well-written considering the troublesome subject matter. I highly recommend this title, even for older audiences. I congratulate McKay on the work she has done with a subject that could so easily become an unruly tale of confusion.
Rob Bittner recently graduated from the MA in Children's Literature program at The University of British Columbia and is now a PhD student in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC.
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