10 August 2010

Bamboo People (Mitali Perkins)

Burma (officially, since 1989, the Union of Myanmar) is in southeast Asia, between India and Thailand. It was an independent kingdom for several hundred years, but after a series of three wars with Britain, the Konbaung dynasty fell and Burma was annexed into the British Empire in 1885. The country was occupied by the Japanese from 1942 until 1945 (one of their accomplishments being the construction of a railroad from Bangkok, Thailand, to the Burmese capital at Rangoon), after which the country reverted to British rule.

Independence was granted in 1948. In 1962, General Ne Win - former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and interim Prime Minister - led a successful coup. The military has retained control of Burma since then, ignoring the results of elections and viciously suppressing protests. The junta which seized power in 1988 has been accused of many human-rights violations, including murder, brutal military offensives against ethnic minorities (such as the Karen), forced labour, and the use of child soldiers.

Chiko is a 15-year-old Burmese boy, living alone with his mother in Yangon (the former Rangoon) since his father was arrested for treason four months ago. The father was a doctor, and Chiko learned much from him, including reading and writing (both Burmese and English). Since the arrest there has been no money coming in, and Chiko's mother has been selling off household goods in order to buy food. Chiko wants to become a teacher, and when he spots an ad in the paper he talks his mother into letting him apply for the job and take the examination. It turns out to be a trap, though; boys who have shown up for the exam are grabbed by soldiers and forced into the Army. Their training camp is a former Karenni school near the Thai border.

Tu Reh is a 16-year-old Karenni boy. After his village was burned by Burmese soldiers, he fled with his parents and sister to a refugee camp just across the border in Thailand. Since then, he and his best friend, Sa Reh, have been looking forward to getting revenge. Now, for the first time, he is accompanying his father and other men from the camp on a mission to deliver medical supplies and food to Karenni hiding in the jungle. They are unarmed, but he is at least accomplishing something.

And now, somewhere out in the jungle, Chiko and Tu Reh are about to meet....

The good: First-person present-tense narratives normally annoy me, but after the first couple of pages I didn't even notice that the book was written this way (with the first section narrated by Chiko and the second by Tu Reh).

I really hadn't read much about Burma (other than in books about World War II) before this book came along, and I'm sure most American readers will know less than I did. Perkins manages to provide background information without resorting to info dumps such as my first two paragraphs above; details are worked in as the story progresses.
I lift the cover off the plate and see ngapi, the dried and fermented shrimp paste we eat with every meal; rice; and a few chunks of chicken floating in a pale, weak curry. [Chiko, p 8]


Sidewalk vendors are beginning to set up wares for the afternoon. The rickshaw veers to avoid children playing in the streets. These little ones should be inschool, but they don't have a choice. Schools have been closed so many times that nobody can learn much. [Chiko, p 25]


"Home" in the camp is a bamboo hut on stilts. Looks a bit like our house in the village, but it's much smaller. ... I put my bamboo pole where it belongs, against the wall near my sleeping mat. Afternoon sunshine filters through the walls. Sand is piled in one corner of the room, and a pot of rice steams there on a small fire. [Tu Reh, p 195]

I read Perkins's previous book, Secret Keeper, last year, and was left wondering how, should UFOs ever land and disgorge their crews, we could possibly understand them; the people in Secret Keeper are every bit as human as I am, but I couldn't understand the way their minds worked at all - the cultural differences were just too great. Maybe it's just a guy thing, but I didn't have that problem at all with Bamboo People; the themes of war, hate and revenge were much simpler.

A couple of back-of-the-book notes give background on Burma and its history, and on the author's interest therein.

The bad: The Burmese and Karenni names are a little confusing, especially the latter. For instance, all of the male Karenni are named Reh (Tu Reh, Sa Reh, Bu Reh) and all of the females are named Meh (Oo Meh, Ree Meh, Nya Meh). Since Oo Meh is Tu Reh's sister, and Oo Reh is their father, I'm assuming that "Meh" and "Reh" are actually sex* markers, not names; in fact, I'm going to slide a little farther out on my limb here and guess that they actually mean "daughter" and "son." It really would have been nice to have another note, concerning names, at the back of the book.

And I'm sorry, but "Chiko" is just too much like "Chico" - I kept snickering as I pictured a Mexican boy lost in the Burmese jungles....

Bamboo People: A Novel, by Mitali Perkins. Charlesbridge, 2010. Young adult. Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, of course - though buying through IndieBound or from your local independent bookseller is highly recommended!

Other reviews can be found here (A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy) and here (Semicolon). Perkins's blog (Mitali's Fire Escape) can be found here, and she has a page about Bamboo People here.

* People have sexes; genders are for nouns.

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