Back-of-the-book blurb: Chiko isn’t a fighter by nature. He’s a book-loving Burmese boy whose father, a doctor, is in prison for resisting the government. Tu Reh, on the other hand, wants to fight for freedom after watching Burmese soldiers destroy his Karenni family’s home and bamboo fields.
Timidity becomes courage and anger becomes compassion as each boy is changed by unlikely friendships formed under extreme circumstances.
This coming-of-age novel takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma. Narrated by two fifteen-year-old boys on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of the many ethnic minorities in Burma, Bamboo People explores the nature of violence, power, and prejudice.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: Bamboo People takes place in a setting that forces boys to grow too soon into men. Throughout the novel, author Mitali Perkins shows the sharp contrasts, almost dichotomies, of present-day Burma. Even the landscape doesn’t escape this shift, as 15-year-old Chiko describes what could be beautiful scenery, using the word “blood” to foreshadow the way his world is changing (p. 31):
We’re already on the outskirts of the city and heading north, where rice paddies and coconut trees line the narrow, flat highway. Women are harvesting rice, their bodies bent, their bamboo hats shaped like upside-down bowls. Thin, straight streams sparkle like wires, dividing the wet fields into squares. The last rays of the sun redden, spilling into the water like blood.
Chiko has seen changes in his country: his father has been arrested, he and his mother hide the foreign books in their home, whisper so as not to be overheard when in public, and avoid calling attention to themselves. Chiko repeats a mantra to help him through difficult times (p. 79): One day at a time. Mind your business. Stay out of trouble.
As the story moves along, Chiko adds a prayer to his chant: Give me courage. Chiko reevaluates his goals, weighing the possibility of helping someone else, instead of only looking out for himself. There is a great lesson subtly taught in these pages, and one that is shown again in the section narrated by Tu Reh, the 16-year-old Karenni refugee.
Tu Reh, too, is faced with a choice – does he see one Burmese person as an indidual, or does he see him only as part of the larger politically-driven group who has hurt his family and destroyed their home? Tu Reh and Chiko are both given the opportunity to practice The Golden Rule, and model just treatment of others. Whether each chooses to follow it and treat others as they would desire to be treated (not necessarily as they have been treated), is a test of character under extreme circumstances.
Mitali Perkins brings the reader into Burma, showing us not only the beautiful natural settings and the characters of various ethnic groups, but also the oppression in the city, the jungle, and the camps. Even within the government-backed “training centers” for soldiers, there is a hierarchy of cruelty, with higher-ups bullying the new recruits. There are references to maiming and attempts at killing people on the opposite side of the conflict; hidden mines litter the jungle. The violence is a necessary part of the story, and though it is not overly graphic, it did inspire a “It seems so real” comment from my 12-year-old-son, a mature and sensitive reader. What an awesome opportunity for me to talk with him about justice, tying the conversation not only to the Burmese conflict, but also to examples closer to home.
I’m pleased to have the opportunity to read and review Bamboo People, and recommend it to mature Young Adult (and not-so-young adult) readers. Despite the threat of violence and the anger of the conflict, Chiko and Tu Reh are each shown love and support by their own families; the opportunity to practice the Golden Rule begins at home.
Mitali Perkins’ companion website,BambooPeople.org, offers additional resources for individuals, families, or school groups reading the book. She discusses the history of Burma, her own experience visiting refugee camps on the Thai border, and lists questions to discuss within a group or ponder on your own.