Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Fleeing home with your family in the dead of night in order to get across a border to safety is bound to make an impression on any eleven-year-old. Losing your six-year-old sister as other panicked refugees scramble on board the get-away truck adds new dimensions to this already traumatic experience. Starting over with your family in a new country thousands of miles away, the whereabouts of your sister totally unknown, is torture. And being Afghan at your new middle school in the days following September 11 just makes everything that much harder still.
This is the unpleasant situation Fadi finds himself in in this well crafted first novel from N.H. Senzai. Fadi’s family is fortunate among Afghan refugees in that they have relatives both in Peshawar, just over the border in Pakistan, and in California. The family is too much at risk of being arrested or killed by the Taliban if they return to look for Mariam and their American asylum papers will not last forever. If they didn’t leave, they would become stateless. Such impossible situations are not uncommon in the lives of refugees, and Fadi’s family does its best to cling to their hope that Mariam will be found.
Meanwhile life goes on, and they all must learn to adapt. Fadi’s father, a professor of Agriculture, drives a cab to support his family in California, while his older sister takes a job at McDonald’s. Fadi tries to adjust to school and immerses himself in photography with the hope that he will win a contest and be able to rescue Mariam.
While the spectre of losing Mariam hangs over everything in this sensitive and realistic novel, the adjustment of Fadi’s family to their new lives is still what drives the story. Life goes on, after all, despite what trauma each of us may be dealing with. N.H. Senzai has done a remarkable job of creating sympathetic and realistic characters who manage to persevere in difficult circumstances. It is a novel about the difficulty of war, and of being a refugee; about change, growing up, hope, love, hate, and misunderstanding. A surprise twist at the end is both elegant and credible, suggesting more good things to come from this talented writer.