The third book in Deborah Ellis’s trilogy, Mud City shifts focus to Parvana’s friend Shauzia. In Kabul, she also dressed as a boy and worked in the market to earn money for her family. In this book, we encounter her in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and follow her as she leaves the refugee camp to try to make her own way in the city of Peshawar.
As with the other books, we get a good sense of the specificities of life in war time and yet the story focuses on what could be a universal theme of a young girl struggling with balancing her own needs and desires with her relationship to the society in which she lives. Shauzia has dreams and she tries valiantly to work to realize those dreams. She chafes against the urging to help others, to train for a profession, to wait for things. She is, in other words, a reasonably normal teenaged girl, albeit one living in difficult times.
Having read all three of the books now, I think this is probably the great strength of this trilogy. There are points of contact with the everyday experience of the kids likely to read these books — struggles with siblings, struggles with parents, the desire for freedom and the need for connection. Those points of similarity enable the reader to identify with the characters despite the myriad ways in which their lives differ. And that makes the level of detail about the situation in Afghanistan and the refugee camps that much more powerful. These are not people who are so different from us that we cannot identify with them and understand their lives. We can understand things from their perspective if we try just a little bit.
This is illustrated well by the following exchange near the end of the book. Shauzia has been lost in the camp and come across a subsidiary camp outside the walls of people waiting to get into the main camp. She gets picked up by an aid worker who takes her back to where she belongs. She asks him about all these people:
“Who are they?” Shauzia asked.
“They’ve just left Afghanistan,” the aid worker told her. “People are rushing to get across the boarder before the Americans attack.”
“The Americans are going to attack?”
“They’re angry about what happened in New York City.”
The aid worker kept one hand on the steering wheel while he fished around on teh floor with his other.
“Here it is.” He handed Shauzia a piece of newspaper he had found.
Shauzia looked at the photograph. Smoke poured out of the mangled remains of a building.
“Looks like Kabul,” she said, letting the paper drop back to the floor.
If you didn’t see the comments to my last post on this series, someone from the publisher commented providing information about other books they are publishing that might also be of interest to those addressing the issue of war. They are non-fiction books by the same author, this time focused on Iraq. There are no details on their website yet, but I plan to check them out.
The danger with any books about war is that they simplify too much. Usually for good reasons. But the morality of war is complex. There are rarely clear good guys and bad guys. While it might be difficult to communicate that to children, even older children, I think we need to try. And having read this series, I think Deborah Ellis has the skill to do that in an accessible and interesting way.