WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures

A Little Piece of Ground

Written by Elizabeth Laird with Sonia Nimr
Illustrated by Bill Neal
Haymarket Books, 2006, 216 pp.
ISBN: 9781931859387

The image on the book cover–a soccer ball held in someone’s arm—gives the impression of a common children’s book with a sport theme. Looking at the book more closely, unexpected details become evident, such as a military tank aimed arm holding the ball. Furthermore, broken pieces of concrete and bolts create a mountain under the soccer ball. The clues indicate that the child holding the soccer ball on the book cover is living in the middle of a war or invasion. The book title, A Little Piece of Ground, reflects the Palestinian hope for its own piece of ground.

This story is about three boys and their families during the Israeli occupation of Ramallah on the West Bank of Palestine. The Israeli military subjects the West Bank town to a siege in responding to a Palestinian suicide bombing. Karim is a 12-year-old soccer-loving boy who is proud of his Palestinian heritage. Karim’s best friend Joni attends a private Christian school, but their families are close to each other. Hopper is a new friend who has a very different background from Karim and Joni. Hopper had lived in a refugee camp and his father was killed while he was in Kuwait for work. Hopper’s older brother, Salim, is in Jerusalem prison accused unfairly. In the beginning, Karim is drawn to Hopper by his suspicious yet heroic persona, but most of all, playing soccer together draws them closer to each other. Later Karim introduces Hopper to Joni. Despite Karim’s awkward concerns about the discord between Hopper and Joni, they become good friends. Although the curfew controls under occupation are discouraging and hard, Karim and his friends have a delightful time playing soccer.

One day the three boys find paint cans and make a Palestinian flag by painting rocks. They lay their rocky flag on the new soccer field that they created on an unused patch of ground, naming it ‘Hopper’s ground.’ However, the Israeli military demolishes Hopper’s ground. Hopper and Karim are found outside during curfew and are shot by Israeli soldiers. When Karim, suffering from a gunshot wound, is about to die, his big brother Jamal appears and takes him to a hospital. Karim’s survival spreads throughout the town and enhances Karim’s Palestinian pride. He comes home safely and reunites with his friends. Hopper’s brother, Salim, is also released from the Jerusalem prison. Karim’s two friends have different socio-economic status and religious and cultural backgrounds, yet their friendship offers universal connections to readers. The value of truthfulness is portrayed through three boys whose families share the common concern of safety.

The author, Elizabeth Laird, says that she is a life-long adventurer. She was born in New Zealand in 1943 and grew up in South London. Laird has global teaching, traveling, and living experiences around the world —Malaysia, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Palestine. Although Laird’s first visit to Israel was in 1968, she learned about the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees while she lived in Beirut, Lebanon during the civil war there. Laird is the author of Kiss the Dust (1991) and Lost Riders (2008). She lived in Iraq and her experiences with Kurds in Kurdistan and London gave birth to Kiss the Dust. Lost Rider is written about her experiences with young Pakistani camel jockeys while living in Rahimyar Khan, Pakistan. Her website http://www.elizabethlaird.co.uk/index.html provides her blog and interviews in which she talks about her life and the experiences behind her books. Her website enhances reading her books because each book has a unique story from the author.

In 2002, Laird visited occupied Gaza and Ramallah. She had a chance to learn about Palestinian’s living environments and situations while she led workshops for Palestinian writers. On her website, Laid reflects on her experiences in Palestine, “I was appalled by the circumstances in which people were living, and became aware that we in the west know very little of what life is like for Palestinians living under military occupation.” Laird’s effort to maintain sensitivity for cultural authenticity and accuracy in A Little Piece of Ground is reflected through her co-authorship with Sonia Nimr. Nimr is a Palestinian archaeologist, storyteller, writer and translator who lives in Ramallah. Laird’s work is a good example of quality work by a cultural “outsider.” She is not a Palestinian, yet her researcher perspective reflects her thoughtfulness as a writer. Laird lived with a Palestinian family to research the area. In her interview with National Public Radio (NPR), she says, “The task of the novelist is to be truthful to the story. What I tried to do in my book is to be as true as possible to what is like to be a Palestinian child today” (NPR, 2003).

This 216 page long novel includes occasional illustrations that are realistic and powerful in portraying experiences in Ramallah and provoking emotional reactions. They also reflect a criticism of the book—that it portrays a one-sided point of view and is “propaganda” (NPR, 2003). Laird responded to this criticism, “I think this is an interesting criticism. I wrote a book called Kissed the Dust. And it is about a Kurdish family who escaped from Iraqi Kurdistan and interned in Iranian refugee camp under very harsh conditions. They haven’t ever said to me that I should have showed the point of view of the Iranian’s guards in the camp… But there is no point in making a sentimental attempt to show half-truth when whole truth is there in front of me.” The interviews of Laird and critiques of A Little Piece of Ground are provided at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1450994.

This book could be paired with Laird’s other books in which she explores cultures through children’s voices in Iraq, Ethiopia, and Pakistan–Kiss the Dust (Puffin, 1994), Lost Riders (Macmillan, 2010), and The Garbage King (Macmillan, 2004). The Garbage King is about homeless children in Ethiopia. Laird interviewed the Ethiopian street children in Addis Abada for this book.

Pike, J. (2002). Author interview Elizabeth Laird. Retrieved from
http://www.jubileebooks.co.uk/jubilee/magazine/authors/liz_laird/liz_laird_interview.asp

Yoo Kyung Sung, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM

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