Friday, March 18, 2011

Words in the Dust: A Must Read

Some books get a lot of blog "air." Nothing against them, of course. A lot of blogging is about creating community, making friends, and then going hog wild when your friends have something to celebrate.Which, come to think of it, may be where this whole "YA Mafia" thang gets some traction. (For more on the YAM, see Nathan Bransford's post last Friday, which is a summary of a summary.)

I tend to gravitate to the "quieter" books. I have a softspot for novels set outside the USA. If you want some rudimentary psychoanalysis (which I'm sure you don't, but I'm giving it to you anyway), this interest in other cultures probably stems from my being schlepped across the world as a child by my diplomat parents and living in eight different countries.

Which is a long preamble to why I'm RAVING about a book about a young girl with a cleft lip in Afghanistan. Words in the Dust is the debut of Trent Reedy, and is told from the viewpoint of Zulaikah. She is jeered at and sneered at by the local ruffians, and constantly reminded by her father's second wife that she will be lucky if anyone wants to marry her.

Zulaikah, however, has immense inner resources. (She is also a bit of an action heroine at one point, rescuing her younger brother from a dangerous situation.) She strikes up a friendship with an older woman--a friend of her dead mother's--and under this woman's tutelage begins the long struggle to learn to read. (She scratches out her letters in the dust, hence the title.)

(Subplot: Her older sister, Zeynab, is Zulaikah's best friend. So it is with a mixture of pride and sorrow that Zulaikah watches Zeynab's marriage to the well-off brother of a local luminary. This seems to be a marriage of one's dreams, but tragedy awaits.)

Enter the Americans. A convoy, traveling through the village, spots Zulaikah. They return with a medical officer--a woman, much to the dismay of the Afghans--who tells Zulaikah's father that she thinks Zulaikah's lip can be fixed. The American-Afghan relationship is shown in all its complexity, with the understanding that, for the Afghans, the Americans are strange creatures, powerful yet uncomprehending of even the simplest of Afghan cultural courtesies. (Zulaikah is horrified that Captain Mindy, the medical officer, shakes her father's hand, and talks to Zulaikah before addressing her older brother.)

The novel ends with a rollercoaster of events, which I won't reveal so as not to spoil the ending for you. (Because you must read this book!) Suffice it to say, by the end this nearly 48-year-old was brushing tears from his eyes.

And, after you've read the book, come back and tell me whether--had the author been anonymous--you wouldn't have presumed this magnificent novel was written by a woman, and an Afghan woman at that.


  1. This does sound very gripping so I'll put it on my 'desired' list. I'm currently reading Margaret Atwood's 'Cat's Eye' upstairs and 'The Diary of a Nobody' by George and Weedon Grossmith downstairs, in between articles, snippets, blogs and ephemera.

  2. okay Michael I'll give it a read
    Sounds very interesting
    I think your life would make a good story


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