Monday, July 18, 2011

YA Review - The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage." (Lao Tzu)

Katherine Paterson's slim but affecting novel The Day of the Pelican embodies the very nature of Lao Tzu's words. In what seems somewhat of a departure for Paterson, this novel is set in Kosovo in 1998, during the conflict between Serbian and Albanian Kosovars. The story centers around almost twelve-year-old Meli Lleshi, an Albanian Kosovar who, with her family, is plunged into unexpected conflict when her brother Mehmet is captured by Serbian soldiers. Almost without warning the Lleshis are forced to flee their home, leaving behind everything they know and love. As the family struggles to survive, moving from one harrowing situation to another, their first priority is to keep everyone together at all costs. And then out of the blue everything changes again for the Lleshis as they immigrate to the US and face a whole new set of challenges, trying to reestablish themselves in a place both welcoming and frightening.

Meli's story is a harrowing yet uplifting one. It's difficult to read about the fallout from ethnic cleansing; in the hands of a lesser author, this could come across as a much different type of tale. But Paterson handles her subject matter deftly, always emphasizing the personal while not underplaying or misrepresenting the horrors ever present in this time and place. Paterson puts faces and names on the tragedies, helping readers to understand the reality that refugees face, whether in the Kosovar region or in other places, and the difficult if not impossible choices that must be made.

For me the most affecting part of the narrative came towards the end, when Meli and her family are living in the US and trying to adjust to their new reality. There are so many parallels between the struggles Meli and the other children face, and those of children newly adopted into American families. Cultural differences and uncertain mastery of a new language are only the tip of the iceberg. The Lleshi children also have to come to terms with the atrocities that they witnessed. This is especially true for Meli's brother Mehmet, whose experiences mark him as unusual in the eyes of his soccer teammates and other boys. Mehmet is angry, very angry, and Meli worries for him that he will never find peace within himself. Children born into countries where war and hunger and strife are the reality may identify with Mehmet especially, and understand how difficult it is for him to resolve his old life with this strange new American one.

If we are to change the world, we must first open our eyes to it, all of it. If we are to reach out to others, we must first know their heartache. The Day of the Pelican is a novel imbued with both heartache and hope, one that will speak to adults and children alike.

The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson, published by Clarion Books
Ages 11 up
Source: Library
Sample quote: "'Once you've been in jail, you're not a kid anymore,' he replied, the words sending a chill up his sister's spine. He was no longer the brother she thought she knew. He didn't speak about that terrible time, but it had changed him. . . . Despite his squawky voice and smooth cheeks, Meli knew that he was becoming a man -- not the sort of kind, loving man that Baba was, but a secretive man with the sharp and watchful eyes of a blackbird."

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