Review of the Day: Brothers In Hope
This is what comes of feeling required to review every major award winner out there. This is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. Just the same, I wouldn't have gone seeking it out for a larf or anything. Here tis:
A very difficult book to review. Not because the book was difficult to read, mind you. "Brothers In Hope" may be many things, but its story is certainly a thoughtfully paced tale. I liked the book fine. The illustrations were not of a style that I've ever really taken to, but that doesn't mean they weren't good. The problem with reviewing children's books is that you have to constantly separate your own personal preferences from the titles you look at. I'm not a fan of Chris Raschka's style either, but there was no denying that his book "The Hello Goodbye Window" was lovely. No, the reason I found this book so hard to review was its subject matter. Picture books that talk about difficult times, whether historical or current, have a tough road to travel. With this tale at her fingertips, Mary Williams has done the best she could with a mighty difficult bit of subject matter.
Garang is only eight when his family's Sudanese village is destroyed while he tends the cattle in the field. Not knowing where to turn or even where to go, he meets boys just like himself traveling down the road. All of them have lost their villages, much in the same way that Garang did, while tending their family's animals. We watch as the boy adopts little five-year-old Chuti Bol as his special companion and the two travel with the group from refugee camp to refugee camp. They met Tom, a relief worker who fights for the boys' education and rights. Even after reaching the first refugee camp the boys still have to run back and forth across the Sudan border to stay alive. As Garang and the boys finally make a home for themselves in Kenya the years pass. Tom finally comes back and informs everyone that the United States will start taking the boys in as refugees. The story is done but it is far from over. In her Afterword, Williams does not sugarcoat the challenges the boys still face in America. I appreciated that she mentioned that "Several communities of Lost Boys do not benefit from the resources and emotional support of committed volunteers". Still, the story she draws from their trials is a hopeful one and one that needs to be told.
In the back of the book is a map of Africa that shows the path the boys took in the story. Mary Williams herself, we learn via bookflap, has worked for such organizations as the International Rescue Committee and UNESCO. For a first book, she has a good grasp of narrative. Williams draws gentle comparisons between moments in Garang's life, tying them together without difficulty. The fact that he knew how to herd cattle accounts for his ability to herd young boys a little later. Williams is a little vague on some of the details, of course. We must assume that Garang is not actually real and that he is just a representative she created to stand in for other boys. If this is not the case, it is not mentioned in the book. It's a little difficult to believe that the 35 boys in his group never succumb to illness, drowning, or starvation in any way, but I figure Williams knew that the story was so harsh that a little lightening here and there couldn't hurt.
As I mentioned before, the illustrations of R. Gregory Christie are not a style that I particularly take to. But that's just me. Though I found his picture of Tom when old downright scary, I appreciate that he's found a form of illustration that works for him and illustrates his books accordingly. I have to say that I much preferred his work on books like "Richard Wright and the Library Card". I kind of wish he'd used that kind of drawing for this book rather than his current form. Ah well.
There are few books I can think to compare "Brothers In Hope" to. If you should read this book to a kid and you find that they would like to know what life was like for the brothers when they got to America, the closest equivalent I can think of is "The Color of Home" by Mary Hoffman. Of course, the people in that book are Somalian, not Sudanese. But the Somalians, like many Lost Boys, have often moved to cold climate regions in America like the Dakotas or Minnesota. The comparison is not entirely without merit. Still, "Brothers In Hope" is a rare fish. You won't find many books like it out there. Deserving of its praise.