Isaac, a young American boy, is growing up in Java where his parents are missionary doctors. He speaks Javanese and Indonesian and he has a friend, Ismail, in the community beyond the walls of the mission compound.
Isaac and Ismail are just boys, mucking about as boys do, until the eve of the bombing of the twin towers in New York, which is preceded and followed by the rise of Islamic militancy in Java. This profoundly affects Isaac’s relationship, not only with Ismail, but with the rest of the Javanese community. It raises questions for him about the mission’s relationship with the society in which it operates, about his relationship with Ismail, about his own faith and about the rights of people of one faith to impose that faith on the people of another.
The book attempts to present a balanced view of the two communities, but doesn’t really succeed in doing so. There are good people and bad people on both sides, but whilst the worst of the Americans is a silly boy called Robert the Slobert, a caricature straight from Boys Own who merely name calls, the worst of the Javanese are people who riot, kidnap, mutilate and attempt to murder.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is presented as mainly militant and hostile, prepared to torture and brainwash a child to further its interests. Little is said about the Christian fundamentalism which has sent the missionaries from their own country to seek converts in a country with an established faith of its own. No mention made of the Christian/colonial history in the East Indies that Ismail’s ancestors once suffered at the hands of Christians who came with the bible in one hand and a gun in the other, often using pretty harsh conversion measures and carrying protestors away into slavery in far-off lands. The reader seems expected to accept as a given the right of the missionaries to be where they are, and to rejoice in the Rambo-style antics of the American military heroes who sweep in to rescue them from the Javanese mob.
I had a problem with the style in which the book is written, wavering between describing the events from the point of view and in the language of Isaac, a 12-year-old boy, and describing them in the language of and from the viewpoint of an adult with a particular political outlook. Also, had it not been for the Reeboks, cellphones and helicopters, the book often seemed as if it could have been set in the colonial times of yore ie when the empire was British, not American and Robert the Slobert was Billy Bunter. Despite these reservations, I did find the book thought-provoking and would recommend it to young people because of the issues it raises, even if it doesn’t address them all, or addresses them unsatisfactorily.