Monday, January 2, 2012

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy

Zulaikha’s teeth protrude from a cleft in her upper lip that make her a target of abuse and teasing by bullies, relatives, and adults. Life is tough and with her deformity, she has no hope for a future as a girl growing up in Afghanistan. Her sister Zeynab is beautiful and Zulaikha dreams with her about marriage and the happiness that will come with it. This is what most girls dream of in Afghanistan. When an American soldier sees Zulaikha as his tanks roll into town, Zulaikha is offered the chance to have her face repaired at a base hospital for free. She also meets a woman who teaches her to read. Girls do not go to school and cannot read, but this woman plants the seed of Zulaikha getting an education. Will Zulaikha risk going to school? As her life changes, she discovers that happiness is more than being beautiful and getting married.

What a surprising gem of a story. The plot is complex and multilayered and while at first I wondered if the Americans would only look good and the Afghan’s would look ignorant, the characters have a depth that shows why they act the way they do. The Americans are mainly doing good but the author shows the cultural blunders they make and the hypocritical statements about trusting the Afghans but then watching the workers at the base with machine guns (because they obviously don’t trust them). The Afghan men are shown as abusive and loving. It was interesting how Zulaikha loved her father even though he hit the women in the house. The author also makes a clear distinction between the violent Taliban and the peaceful Afghan people. The first 100 pages might seem slow to some readers as it sets-up for a strong ending.

This book has some mature themes and I wouldn’t follow the guidelines of ages 9-13. I would recommend it for grade 5 and up. Women are hit by husbands and have no rights in a male-dominated society. There are allusions to sex but they will probably go over the head of most readers. For instance, Zulaikha’s stepmother receives a blood-stained wedding cloth after Zeynab’s wedding and her sister tells Zulaikha she’s having difficulties with her husband who wants a son, ”but I don’t know.” Nothing is explained. There is a grisly death at the end that might scare readers. The author does a good job showing the story in a nonjudgemental way and it is obvious that it was well-researched. Make sure to read the Acknowledgements at the end where the author explains why he wrote this book.

Reading Level 4.8
:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

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