Verdict: This look into the life of child soldiers in Burma (aka Myanmar) without all the gritty, traumatizing realities of war makes this book appropriate for younger readers (age 10 and up). As it is fiction, the book is more an allegory about keeping one’s humanity in an inhumane situation than it is an accurate portrayal of child soldiers. It’s a simple yet rewarding story. Recommended.
Perfect for: Younger YA readers or readers curious about the life of child soldiers, or about other cultures.
Summary: The first section of the book is narrated by Chiko, a bookish fifteen-year-old boy who lives in a major city. His father, a doctor and scholar, has been in prison for some time for being a suspected enemy of the state for owning English books. Lured downtown by an advertisement that claims the government is recruiting people for teacher-training, Chiko is captured by the army and brought to the jungle to be trained as a soldier. The official government of Burma* has been trying to suppress tribal insurgents (collectively known as the Karenni) who live in the jungles along the Thai border in an ongoing civil war. Hated by his commander for his weakness, Chiko is sent into enemy territory as a mine sweeper with some other soldier boys.
The second section of the story is narrated by a sixteen year old Karenni soldier named Tu Reh, who along with his father, finds an injured Chiko close to the Karenni refugee camp. After some internal struggle, Tu Reh decides to rescue Chiko and bring him back to the camp for healing, which plunges Tu Reh into trouble with others in the camp. This is a classic story of two boys who could be friends, but find each other on opposite sides of a violent conflict.
*click here for more information about Burma/ Myanmar. There is much conflict over the proper name of the country, but since the author uses “Burmese” when referring to the majority population, I will use the same term in this post.
During the first few pages of the book, Chiko worries about his mother’s ration cards running out and that the soldiers who took away his father will return to take him away too. After reading so many dystopian novels set in the future, it took me a minute to realize that ration cards and oppressive, militarized governments exist in other countries in the here and now. The stakes that Chiko and Tu Reh face are so terrifyingly real, that it is easy to invest yourself in their story.
Author Mitali Perkins was born in India and has traveled all over the world and has had access to talking with people from many cultures. The details about Burmese and Karenni life that are woven into the book feel authentic and organic to the story. While the two boys’ narratives seemed almost American to me in their tone, I loved the little linguistic details that made you realize you were somewhere else entirely, such as people calling others “sister” “brother” or “grandfather” even if they are not related by blood. I also liked that Perkins managed to convey so much information about these cultures through showing, not telling. For instance, I had to infer that Chiko was meant to be Buddhist and that the Karenni are Christian. The cultural details of this story made me want to find out more about this troubled region.
The key conflict of the story is Tu Reh’s decision to spare Chiko’s life and to stand up for him to the other members of the Karenni refuge camp. After all, Chiko is a Burmese soldier, and Burmese soldiers burned down Tu Reh’s home and have done unspeakable things to other Karenni. Many in the refugee camp feel that they must be relentlessly unmerciful to all Burmese in order to sustain the Karenni resistance. However, Tu Reh’s father, a respected leader, counsels Tu Reh that no one should ever be compelled to kill, and to remember the passage in Ecclesiastes 3:3 about there being a time to kill and a time to heal. Many of the Karenni demonstrate that they believe being merciful sustains their humanity. But ultimately the choice is Tu Reh’s and it is easy to empathize with him as he wrestles with the difficult choice he must make.
A book about child soldiers could get disturbing, fast. However, Bamboo People hints at the atrocities of war without being explicit. After reading so many graphic dystopian novels, it was kind of a relief to read about a challenging topic without feeling completely traumatized. Some people might feel that leaving out brutal scenes of dismemberment by landmines, or rapes by soldiers, or graphic scenes of killing misrepresents the lives of child soldiers and presents a “Disney”-fied view of the conflict in Burma. This is true to some extent, but I think leaving out the gory details, and putting in enough hints about the traumas of war, makes this book something that is more appropriate for younger readers.
While it didn’t bother me that a gentler picture of war was presented by the author, I did feel that all the plot lines were tied up a little too neatly. In some ways, though, it was nice to finally read a story that ends the way you might hope it would for characters you care about. But in other ways, it made the story feel more like an allegory or fairy tale than realism. I’m not entirely sure if this is a “problem” for the book or not, as it is fiction after all. I guess I feel ambiguous about the story’s lack of ambiguity.