Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Milk of Birds by Sylvia Whitman

"Peace is the milk of birds."

This novel is a truly heartrending fictional account of the terrible situation endured by the people of Darfur, especially its women in 2008.  

Milk of Birds contains two narratives, that of Nawra bint Ibrahim, a fourteen year old girl in a refugee camp in Darfur and Katherine (K.C.) Cannelli a young girl struggling academically in her first year of high school. Their stories are told in a series of letters exchanged between the two girls, which highlight their profoundly different life experiences and culture. Each girl also has her own story which informs the reader of the reality of their lives.

K.C. lives in Richmond, Virginia with her mother and older brother, Todd. Her father and mother are divorced and he has remarried. She is still trying to come to terms with what has happened to their family.

K.C is having difficulty in school. Her marks are poor and she has trouble concentrating. Her mother signs her up to be a part of the Save the Girls nonprofit organization working with refugees from Darfur, Sudan. They send a donation each month, part of which goes to the girl in a refugee camp who then sends letters back to her sponsor. Save the Girls matches a girl refugee with a sister in America so they can correspond. K.C. is matched with Nawra The two girls are to correspond, but K.C. gets four letters from Nawra which go unanswered. K.C. doesn't respond, mainly because she has difficulty writing but also because of a kind of indifference.
"...Life sucks for this Nawra person. 
But what am I supposed to do about it? I can't even pass the practice test in world geography."
K.C. reveals to Nawra that she is the oldest in her class and was held back in school when she was younger. While Nawra isn't able to go to school, K.C. wishes she didn't have to. School is hard for her and it seems to take her a long time to finish assignments. Finally her mother decides to get K.C. tested to see if she has a learning problem.

As K.C. continues to write to Nawra and receives her letters, K.C. begins to understand just how difficult Nawra's life is and she wants to do something. Contact with Nawra expands her world, shows her that people everywhere have problems and helps put her own problems in perspective.

Eventually KC decides that she wants to form a new club at her school, The Darfur Club, to educate people on the situation in Sudan and to raise money to buy fuel-efficient stoves and donkeys. For K.C. it's about making a difference. With Mr. Nguyen as their faculty sponsor, K.C. and her best friend, Emily and her classmate Parker (whom she is crushing on) organize a major project to raise money for the refugees, to buy them things that will make their lives easier and help them get a new start. This project highlights one of K.C.'s strengths - that of thinking outside the box.

In complete contrast to K.C's life of physical ease and comfort, is Nawra's struggle to live with even a bit of dignity in a world torn apart by war, greed and fear. Nawra lives in a camp for displaced refugees (Internally Displaced Persons - IDP) after fleeing from the janjaweeds (outlaws hired by the Sudanese government) who murdered everyone in her village, Umm Jamila. Only Nawra and her mother, who is in such shock she is mute, have escaped. Nawra finds herself pregnant as a result of rape, dishonored and like "spoiled meat". The camp is crowded, dirty and smelly. There is little food and poor sanitation. Still the refugees know that life must go on and a school is formed for the children.  There she meets a young girl, Adeeba  from a well to do family, who is educated, but also now a refugee.
"When a tree leans, it will rest on its sister."
When the Save the Girls representatives show up, Nawra is encouraged to join, so she can have some extra money. Nawra who cannot write, dictates her letters to Adeeba, who acts as a scribe.  As we read the two girls' correspondence, it becomes apparent that despite the cultural divide and the geographic distance, both K.C. and Nawra have some similar problems.

Like K.C., Nawra's family is"broken", but not by choice, but by violence and murder. For K.C. she understands how Nawra feels "spoiled" or as K.C. puts it, "defective"  with her inability to do school work. Like K.C., Nawra also has difficulty writing but it is because she is illiterate. Despite the huge cultural differences as evidenced by what each girl writes about, both girls can find something in their letters that resonates with them. Nawra encourages K.C. to persevere and to respect her mother, while K.C. is deeply touched by Nawra's struggle to simply survive and she encourages her to keep going. Both girls stories end with a measure of hope and both begin to find their own way in their world.

Admittedly this novel was a bit slow at first, but I encourage readers to persevere because there is an important story to be told and it worth reading. Whitman did a great deal of research in order to create Nawra's voice and make it authentic. She also educates her readers through Nawra's narrative but also by using K.C.'s mom, who gives her daughter some background information on how things came to be in Sudan.

There are many issues covered in this novel including rape, female circumcision, AIDS, forced marriage, the concept of honor in Sudanese Muslim families, the role of men and women, identity, education for girls, learning disabilities, environmental destruction, and global social responsibility. While that might seem like far too many, really all these issues at inter-related, especially in the African state of Sudan, and in Nawra's culture. And the this issues are often only obliquely mentioned but yet they are interconnected.

For example, the issue of AIDS and rape are related, not just because a woman can contract AIDS from rape, but also because of the belief by the men in Nawra's culture that sex with a virgin can cure them. Although there is only a mention of this in passing in the novel, this is a prevalent belief that medical field workers must counter. It leads to the violation of very young girls. Rape is also often used as a weapon of war, to destroy a society, weakening family bonds, and demoralizing and marginalizing women.

I highly recommend this book to teens of all ages. There is quite a bit of violence in the novel but it's not done in a graphic way, simply told in Nawra's understated narrative. The beautiful cover only enhances the prospective reader's desire to open the cover and learn more. I would love to see more novels written on recent events.

For those interested in learning more about the situation in Darfur, please see Save Darfur Coalition Another good summary of the conflict maybe found on the World Without Genocide website and the Council on Foreign Relations website.

Book Details:
The Milk of Birds by Sylvia Whitman
Toronto: Atheneum Books for Young Readers    2013
363 pp.

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