What Makes a Great Immigrant Novel

Lebanon_Syrian_refugees  An immigrant, simply defined, is an individual who comes to a foreign country to take up residence. Though accurate, this characterization fails to capture the devastating exodus today from entire regions of the world. Global immigration now affects each of us politically and culturally, if not personally. Middle grade and young adult novelists have explored earlier periods of immigration in books like Karen Hesse’s, Letters from Rivka and Sid Fleishman’s Matchbook Diary. Others, like those reviewed in this article, provide an intimate portrait of displaced people today.

Contemporary immigrants and refugees have been uprooted not only by religious intolerance and poverty but by racism, sexism and war. Knowledge of their diverse experiences and destinations elucidates the universality of their predicament and the hope it has inspired. Successful immigrant novels are neither heavy-handed nor moralistic but portray real-life situations, mirror today’s events and can alter the reader’s preconceptions through their compelling prose.

A novel that explores the real-life plight of an international immigrant with heartbreaking immediacy is Judie Oron’s, Cry of the Giraffe. Wuditu is nine years old at the beginning of the story, a falasha or stranger, living in the Ethiopian highlands. Cry of the Giraffe depicts the traditions and lives of a people who call themselves Beta Israel⎯Jewish Ethiopians whom other tribes believe are bewitched. Due to the intolerance they face, Wuditu’s people abandon their home for Israel. Wuditu, now thirteen, is separated from her family and must survive in war-torn Ethiopia. Oron conveys in riveting detail Wuditu’s desperation and the horrors she endures in a local brothel and her subsequent enslavement. The combination of Wuditu’s determination and unexpected good fortune ultimately prevail, and she is rewarded with the freedom that comes with a life in Israel. The narrative explodes with meaning as these dramatic occurrences are made palpable, enhanced by Oron’s journalistic attention to detail.

Another writer who folds real-life experiences into an impressive narrative is Jan Coates, the author of A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk. images-1Jacob Deng is five years old when Muslim soldiers invade Duk Padiet, his Sudanese village, and force the inhabitants to flee. A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk is based on Deng’s experience as one of the Sudan’s 20,000 “Lost Boys”⎯ children displaced by war and forced to escape into nearby Ethiopia. In a moment of tenderness and desperation, the boys grasp hands and “become the spider” to keep from drowning as they struggle to cross the mighty Gilo River. Several die and Coates illustrates both Jacob’s innocence and his uniformly positive attitude in the face of despair. Jacob’s undying hope and his quest for belonging are universal themes sure to grip young readers.

Young Vonlai of Laura Manivong’s Escaping the Tiger plays soccer, fetches water for his mother’s cooking pot and watches over his sister, typical activities of twelve-year-old Laotian boys. Manivong’s book is loosely based on her husband Troy’s real life in Laos after the Vietnam War. The war may be ancient history to young readers, but how Laura Manivong treats Vonlai’s experience in a refugee camp and his subsequent integration into the United States is not. Vonlai’s dream, like Troy Manivong’s, is to become an architect. After more than a decade in a refugee camp, it fades into little more than a lost hope. Both Troy Manivong and the fictionalized Vonlai repatriate to the United States. Troy develops a thriving landscaping business and one is left to imagine Vonlai’s subsequent achievements. Readers, hesitant to pour over history books, will be enthralled both by the young Vonlai and by Laura Manivong’s deft merging of reality with fiction.

An excellent example of fiction that draws from current events is Crossing the Wire by Will Hobbs. The author weaves an imagined tale of young Victor Flores and his illegal trek across the U.S. border. Victor is satisfied with his life in Los Arboles, Mexico, despite the pressure from his friends to immigrate to “El Norte” where “life is good.” But at age fifteen, he realizes he must make the journey to keep his family alive. The clarity with which Hobbs describes the ensuing events brings an impressive reality to the tale. Victor is approached toimages-2 become a drug mule, he is beaten by addicts and is robbed of the little he has. Yet he manages to cross the border and, though he enters the U.S. illegally, he finds work as a migrant fruit picker. One might conclude this is not much of a reward for such a grim struggle, though what Victor earns will sustain his starving family. Victor Flores’ life is far from the mainstream American teenager’s experience, yet Crossing the Wire harkens back to our shared immigrant past. It brings to life one of the most highly politicized dramas of our time; dangerous and illegal immigration into the U.S. across the Mexican border. Through Victor, young readers can put a human face on the thousands who make this journey every year.

The plight of Muslim refugees is not only a highly emotional subject but one that evokes both moral and political concerns. Author Michael Morpurgo provides us with a valuable, fictionalized treatment of this issue in his novel, Shadow. In it, Morpurgo’s Aman finds a lost dog, names her Shadow and hides her from his disapproving family. But the Taliban has murdered his father and Aman must give up Shadow and flee Afghanistan with his mother. The novel recounts their epic journey through Turkey, Iraq and Eastern Europe to reach England. For a time they survive as illegal immigrants until they are discovered and interred at Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre. Yet Morpugo’s novel ends happily when attention is drawn to Aman’s case, an exception is made for his family, and he reconnects with Shadow. Still, the misery he and his mother have endured is magnified by the reality countless Muslims face today when they are forced from their land by terrorists. Morpurgo’s adept use of multiple narrators lends further depth and credibility to his novel. Books like Shadow provide insight into the human toll taken by terrorism and the magnitude of the world’s effort to aid millions of desperate peopleimgres-2

Emotionally powerful storytelling can inspire an appreciation for the plight faced by today’s immigrants. Koumail, as his adopted mother Gloria calls him, is seven years old at the beginning of Anne-Laure Bondoux’s A Time of Miracles. The year is 1992. The Soviet Union has fallen and Koumail’s homeland of Georgia is in political turmoil. Gloria has always insisted she was a bystander who rescued him from a train wreck. Yet, unbeknownst to Koumail, she was a revolutionary at the time and is now hunted by Russian militia. Frantic to escape, she is adamant that they travel to France where Koumail may claim what she says is his true French citizenship. Still, France is far from Georgia and they must face marauding gunmen, infection at a toxic waste dump and near starvation. Though their situation is often bleak, Koumail’s lack of self-absorption endears him to the reader. His unique temperament and Bondoux’s vivid prose are the strengths of this novel. In a scene where Koumail experiences first love, it is the author’s delicate attention to detail that enhances and deepens his character. “Love makes me hot and cold; the pure and simple truth is that I’m not sure I can survive it.” In the end, it is not surprising that Koumail finds belonging. Despite his physical deprivation, love is the gift he has been given from the very start.

imagesWriters of literature for children can encourage young people to reflect on how the world might integrate immigrants in the future. The works cited here employ distinct literary devices to deliver this message. The true-life events in some are so impactful the writers have not chosen to stray far from straightforward journalism. Other authors have taken highly debated issues like illegal immigration or the conflict in the Middle East and crafted fictional tales that reverberate with intimacy. Finally, writers like Anne-Laure Bondoux do not rely so much on recounting a true story as on their own deftly developed characters, captivating scenes and finely honed descriptions. Books like those championed in this article can be invaluable to young people as they confront the harsh realities of immigration in today’s evolving world.

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