Sunday, April 12, 2015

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate

Katherine Applegate puts words together creating beautiful images. Dave is a an American helping Kek, a Sudanese refugee, settle in Minnesota with his cousin and aunt. Kek thinks Dave's partial use of Dinka and English sounds like "...a song always out of tune, / missing notes / To help him, / I try some English / but my mouth just wants to chew the words / and spit them on the ground." She captures what it is like to be new to a country. To not understand the language. To know this new place is not home. To desperately long to return to what is comfortable and familiar. Humor is balanced with tragedy through the eyes of Kek, who tries to see the good in life. When he gets a job helping on a farm, it reminds him of back home when he helped take care of the village cattle.

There is a Kirkus review that criticizes this book for Kek's character being stereotyped and not fleshed out enough. I didn't notice this when reading the book, but that could be because I have worked with Sudanese boys and my brain already knows about their culture and plight. I agree that Kek might lack some authenticity and there are didactic moments, but I did like how the author has him deal with grief and life in a new land. I thought the criticism somewhat harsh and not as extreme as the reviewer felt. Perhaps Kek's school interactions might be showing too much how people should act toward immigrants versus what Kek was really going through. You'll have to read it yourself to decide.

Some things did not always seem spot-on for me, but other things did. Such as when the cow stops traffic and everyone in the cars are mad. Minnesotans are overly polite in their cars and helpful. Someone would have stepped out to help. Yes, people would have honked and some annoyed, but I can guarantee at least one person would have stepped out of their car to help some kids with a stubborn cow in the middle of a busy intersection. Some observers would have thought it funny. But that's really minor and I only know this because I spent 40 years living in this state. What I particular liked was how the author has Kek think about how there are many tribes in America and that they live side-by-side without fear. When working with the Sudanese students at our school, that was the one thing they marveled at the most. Many times they said, "You have many tribes but you get along. And you don't kill the leader if you disagree with him." While some readers might see this as unalloyed enthusiasm for America, it was something I heard many times from the refugees.

Maybe Kek is too nice and positive for some readers. Yes, he could have more characteristics explained such as his language and looks. But I was able to put a clear picture in my head even if the free verse lacked details. Of course, my personal experience dealing with Sudanese boys needs to be considered. It's easier to picture something when you have background knowledge. The students I worked with had to deal with injuries from camp just like Kek's cousin. No one was missing a hand, but one was missing an eye and another had serious back problems. These four of the kids lived together and three of them worked additional jobs to pay for their apartment. It was not easy for them.

Trying to write a story about a different culture when the author is not from it is always going to be tricky. The pitfalls of stereotyping is one issue, as well as, a lack of authenticity. While this book falls short in some spots I didn't think it should be written off. It did speak to me as a foreigner living in a different country. I could empathize with Kek's culture shock and I didn't think he was quite as two dimensional as other readers thought. Like I said, you'll have to decide for yourself.

3 Smileys

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