This review appeared in the Asian Review of Books on July 3.
Bamboo People deals with a weighty topic — the oppression of ethnic minorities in modern-day Burma. Specifically, this book looks at the Karenni, a people who have been hounded out of their homes by the Burmese military and now live in refugee camps near the Thailand border. But Mitali Perkins must be one of the most readable young adult writers alive, and her excellent characterizations temper the gravitas of the tale without diminishing the very real plight of the communities concerned.
A young Karenni Tu Reh joins the local resistance movement, and is waiting to take revenge on the soldiers who burnt his home and fields. His chance arrives when he stumbles upon the wounded body of Chiko, a Burmese soldier. But Chiko turns out to be his own age, a bookish, soft-spoken boy who was co-opted into the army unawares. Misinformation and prejudice struggle to survive in the face of their growing kinship.
The first part of Bamboo People is written in Chiko’s voice and the second in Tu Reh’s, and while Perkins evokes our equal sympathy for both characters, I found myself drawn in particular to Chiko, whose glasses and fondness for books make him an easy target in a hyper-aggressive military culture. Perkins knows how to make us care about her characters, and we easily identify with a boy who loves The Lord of the Rings and nurses a not-so-secret crush on the girl next door — and just happens to be a reluctant Burmese soldier. And Tu Reh’s predicament — to figure out the right thing to do, and to have the courage to do it — will resonate with readers an ocean away.
Bamboo People makes several references to Christianity — the Karenni are Christians, and the impetus/inspiration for the Karenni characters to act morally is often provided by their religion. In spite of the many Biblical quotations, this book never hits a preacherly note, and moreover, I can safely predict that the story will inspire readers of all religious affinities (if any) to learn more about Burma and the Karenni. In the final reckoning, Bamboo People is a tale so skillfully told that we realize only much later that we’ve been educated to boot — which is as should be. Recommended.
Visit the book’s site to learn more about the Karenni–and how we can help.
Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2010
Genre: Middle-grade fiction