Born Under a Million Shadows by Andrea Busfield
Release date: 2009 / 286 pages
Synopsis (from back cover): “The Taliban have withdrawn from Kabul’s streets, but the long shadows of their regime remain. Eleven-year-old Fawad — a charming, impish, and wickedly observant Afghan boy — has known more grief than most: his father and brother have been killed and his sister has been abducted. Ever the optimist, Fawad hopes for a better life, and his dream is realized when his mother, Mariya, finds a position as a housekeeper for a charismatic Western woman, Georgie, and her two foreign friends.”
First Line: My name is Fawad, and my mother tells me I was born under the shadow of the Taliban.
Review: What a delight this novel is! I had very high hopes since I have yet to read a work of fiction set in the Middle East that I have not enjoyed — and this one did not disappoint. A passage near the very end expresses why all Americans should read Born Under a Million Shadows:
…there is so much more to your country than war, as you can see, but unfortunately we rarely get to hear about it. I don’t think people get the full picture — about what Afghanistan is like, and what Afghans are like.
So true! This story is told through the voice of an eleven-year-old boy, Fawad, an intelligent and thoughtful imp who guides us through the joys and tragedies of Afghanistan today. After teaching ninth graders for years, I think I have an “ear” for adolescent males, and Busfield authentically recreates this tumultuous time of life in Fawad — he is old enough to be realistic about the challenges Afghanistan faces and the complexities of Islam, yet optimistic enough to still find joy in most of his days.
After his father and brother are killed, Fawad’s mother gets a job cooking for three Westerners — the juxtaposition of their lives with Fawad’s results in so many wonderful adventures. Fawad cannot help but be curious about these three new adults,who are so different from the other Afghan adults in his life, and his eavesdropping allows us to enjoy many an adventure.
As an American, I feel a responsibility to learn about cultures and religions that are often objectified and simplified in my country, realizing that any sweeping generalization about any group of people is inherently false and frequently dangerous. While I do not need personal experiences to teach me compassion or to look past any superficial, fear-based proclamations about Islam or the Middle East, I do think this novel could help the U.S. become a better version of ourselves. This hope may be overly optimistic, but I am happy to help Busfield in her mission to celebrate a country often maligned and always misunderstood. I worry when I see so many U.S. citizens substituting their own judgement with that of whomever is loudest or most strident. This gentle novel could help us rediscover our quieter, yet usually more authentic, internal compass.
Beyond any political ramifications, this is simply a page-turning great read, so I wanted to include a few passages of Fawad’s “voice” and unique humor. Please realize that once you get to know and love Fawad, these lines will resonate even deeper:
As we chased the goats around the field, it soon became clear that Mulallah wasn’t like other girls I knew — not that I knew that many. She was strong in her eyes and hard in her talk, and, more amazingly for a girl, she ws a very fast runner, which is a good talent to have in Afghanistan. As she raced through the fields with her red scarf floating from her neck, I thought she looked like a firework.
Amazingly, when foreigners visit this country, they can’t help but go on about its ‘breathtaking beauty’ and how ‘noble and courageous’ its people are, but this is the reality of Afghanistan: pain and death. There’s not one of us who hasn’t been touched by them in one way or another. From the Russians to the mujahideen to the Taliban, war has stolen our fathers and brothers; the leftovers of war continue to take our children; and the results of war have left us poor as beggars. So the foreigners can keep their talk of beautiful scenery and traditional goodness because all of us would swap it in a heartbeat for just one moment’s peace, and it’s high time the sorrow that came to plant itself in our soil just packed up and went away to terrorize someone else.
When you can read and write and discover facts for yourself, it is far easier to see God’s truth… Education is the key to Afghanistan’s successful future, Fawad, because it fights ignorance and intolerance and brings the blessing of opportunity. When a man has knowledge he has power — the power to make informed decisions; the power to distinguish truth from lies; and the power to sharpe his own destiny in accordance with God’s will. He is stronger than the ignorant man, who can do nothing but blindly accept the supposed learning of another.
I would love to share this novel with others… If you are interested, please leave me a comment below!