Words in the Dust
Written by Trent Reedy
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011, 272 pp.
Trent Reedy’s first book takes readers into the home and life of a young Afghan teenager, Zulaikha, a girl with a cleft lip and palate. Her family lives in a village in the mountains during the U.S. military occupation. Zulaikha and her older sister Zeynab have humble aspirations. While Zeynab wishes to marry, Zulaikha dreams of learning how to read. Her craniofacial difference, however, constitutes a great impediment in this traditional society with no access to modern corrective surgery. She suffers from bullying by the village boys and thinks she will be a burden to her family for the rest of her life. The lives of both young girls soon change. Zeynab is married and Zulaikha clandestinely learns how to read through the support of Meena, a friend of her dead mother who is also a retired professor. The second hopeful event for Zulaikha is when a U.S. soldier helps her get corrective surgery from the army.
This book, written after Trent Reedy’s tour of duty in the National Guard, is grounded in his personal and professional experiences. He did indeed meet a young girl with a cleft lip in Afghanistan, and he and his fellow soldiers pooled funds to provide a similar operation. Reedy’s study of the hardships that Zulaikha encounters is clearly emotionally charged with personal memory and empathy.
According to a video clip on his web site, Trent Reedy first went to Afghanistan on his military tour of duty with a deep mistrust of Afghan people and anger regarding 911. He ends up challenging his own assumptions while helping the country rebuild. His novel is remarkable in that he gives deep insights into the life style of Afghan people in such a way that we understand the universal commonalities of people of another culture. The inner thoughts and self dialogue of a child’s struggle with disability and hopes for education are realistic. Because the anguish expressed about the disability is told in the first person, and in understated touches throughout the book, we do not fixate on that aspect of Zulaikha. She is not a caricature. We experience her love of learning, her love of her family, and her love for her country. The descriptions throughout the book are vivid, genuine, clearly emotionally charged with personal memory and empathy, and written in a simple, direct, and sometimes poetic prose.
On his web site the author states that he had to infer many of the thoughts of the young girl he helped, because he was not allowed to visit her. This and the pre-wedding, traditional, all-women party, would be hard to describe for a male and a foreigner. Trent Reedy explains in an online interview that he overcame this by reading many books and interviewing friends in Afghanistan as well as Afghan-Americans (Griffen, 2011).
In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, he explains that he was living in a compound in the village of An Daral while he and his fellow soldiers waited for Afghan contractors to finish constructing their base outside of the city. For this reason Reedy lived close to the people he describes, because he was not in a military environment. Upon his return from Afghanistan he studied and used extensive notes, photographs and videos he took while on duty. The research together with a pronunciation guide and a list of recommended titles about Afghanistan help to establish a story that is culturally authentic and realistic.
This moving and well-crafted story is a beautiful reminder of how precious education is. This book will encourage young readers to open their minds to a part of the world that may seem very different from their own and to challenge pre-conceived ideas about young people with disabilities.
Books which could be read in tandem with Words in the Dust to provide insights into the harshness of traditional culture in Afghanistan include Shadow by Michael Morpurgo (2012) to understand the scope of hardships of children during the war and as refugees in England; My Name is Parvana by Deborah Ellis (2012), a sequel to the Bread Winner series, which focuses on the struggle for girls in Afghanistan to get an education; and Extra Credit by Andrew Clements (2011) where a young American girl becomes the pen pal of a young boy in Afghanistan who has to write under the name of his sister, as tradition would not allow a boy and a girl of different families to have any sort of contact. This book could also be paired with Wonder (R. J. Palacio, 2012), another debut novel, which also gives insights into craniofacial disabilities.
Griffin , E. (2011, February 24). Meet authors & Illustrators: Trent Reedy. Retrieved from Childrens Literature Independent Information and News website: http://www.childrenslit.com/childrenslit/mai_reedy_trent.html
Elizabeth Serreau, Library Director of The French American International School, Portland Oregon
WOW Review, Volume V, Issue 4 by World of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/v-4/