Review also includes:
Chalkline, *****, Jane Mitchell, Walker, 240pp, 978-1406315172
The market for documentary, autobiographical, fictional and hybrid literatures about the sufferings of children in war-zones flourishes as the atrocities which feed it proliferate. As with holocaust literature, there are troubling questions to be asked about the value, and underlying values, of such works. I highly recommend the two novels reviewed here because they appear to be based on sound fieldwork, and because the stories they tell are accessible enough to support older children’s learning about contemporary conflicts, as well as helping them think about the wider functions of fiction itself.
Beyond the Barricade resumes the story of 12-year-old Diego Juarez from The Prison Runner, a child who becomes involved in the Bolivian coca trade after fleeing from the gaol in which his parents are being held. In this sequel, Diego briefly experiences refuge with a coca-farming family, before the army arrive to destroy their crops at the behest of central government under CIA pressure. Diego is arrested, but escapes to join a death-defying attempt by the destitute farmers to save their meagre livelihood by blockading the highway and demanding the return of their crops. Diego becomes embroiled in conflicting loyalties: to both the farming family and his own abandoned in prison, to the charismatic protest leader and his vulnerable son, even to an army captain who has shown him some decency. When the latter offers to take him ‘home’ to his parents just before the bulldozers are due to close in on the barricade, Diego is forced to make a decision.
Ellis’ moving, exciting and ultimately optimistic story is told plainly and concisely. It is grounded in the historical events in Bolivia which culminated in the election of Evo Morales, the former cocaleros union leader. The details of the desperate protest are based on interviews with Bolivian children and adults whose lives depend on the cultivation of the sacred leaf. It is inspiring to read a book so solidly rooted in real life struggles, though one suspects that the degree of violence that the protagonists would have encountered in real life has been somewhat softened.
This is not the case in Jane Mitchell’s novel, which depicts an even bleaker combat zone. Rafiq is a nine-year-old villager abducted by Kashmiri Freedom Fighters, who take him into the mountain wilderness to train as a child guerrilla. The cruelty of the atrocities inflicted upon him and his fellow victims, including forced complicity in murder by stoning, portends the degree of brutality that the recruits are trained to inflict upon Indian soldiers and civilians, whom they are indoctrinated into regarding as vermin. The way in which this mix of sadism, nationalistic fury and religious hatred steadily brutalises the child is vividly described. However, Rafiq’s grief at the theft of the innocent family life he enjoyed in his home village never completely dies, and the novel’s ambiguous climax is reached when his old and new lives collide.
Like Ellis, Mitchell has researched first-hand the realities behind her novel, which is endorsed by Amnesty International.
Both of these books present realistic versions of childhoods far removed from the lives of the young people most likely to read them. They share a plainness of storytelling style which sometimes echoes the hollow rattle of adventure fiction, but both authors are disconcertingly convincing in detailing underlying truths, and both imply the need for an active response.