With her latest novel, Mitali Perkins once again illustrates the tension of characters caught between cultures, but in Bamboo People the backdrop is war, and the stakes are higher than ever.
Chiko is an educated, 15-year-old Burmese boy whose father, a doctor, is in prison for treating “an enemy of the state” (a leader of the freedom and democracy movement). Chiko and his mother scrape by on savings while sending money to the government each month to pay for his father’s food – even though they can’t be certain he is still alive. Compelled to follow up on an advertisement for a teacher’s exam, even though he knows it might be a scam, Chiko is tricked into military service. During training, Chiko gets a new kind of education from an illiterate street-boy and fellow “recruit” who becomes his best friend.
Chiko’s father had always told him that Burma’s corrupt military government lied about the ethnic minorities their country was at war with, so when injury lands Chiko in a Karenni refugee camp across the Thai border, he is immediately sympathetic to their cause. It is at this point, however, that Perkins changes perspective, and the rest of the novel is told from the point of view of Tu Reh, a Karenni teen not much older than Chiko whose home and village had been destroyed by Burmese soldiers a few months earlier.
Tu Reh is understandably filled with anger and rage at the Burmese soldiers while also experiencing the normal feelings of confusion that come with adolescence. By trusting his heart, Tu Reh comes to see – and helps the camp to see – that Chiko is also a victim of the Burmese military dictatorship and that it is their duty as fellow humans and as Karenni to treat him with compassion.
This fascinating story shines a light on the desperate situation of those affected by current Burmese policies and will help educate young readers about that situation in particular and the vagaries and confusion surrounding conflict in general. The characters, Perkins’s first male protagonists, are very thoughtful, easy to engage with, and surprisingly similar. In fact, as a reader, it felt as if Tu Reh and Chiko could have been the same person had circumstances not shaped their lives so differently. This juxtaposition is absolutely brilliant and illustrates the point that war makes enemies out of people who, in a different context, would become the best of friends.
An author’s note about Perkins’s own experience living in Thailand and visiting the Karenni refugee camps as well as several pages about modern Burma will help readers place the events of the novel in a broader context and will surely engender sympathy for the plight of all those affected by the situation in Burma.