Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

Nine year old Subhi is a Rohingya was born in a refugee detention camp in Australia, or perhaps on an island off the coast of the Australian continentthe-bone-sparrow. He lives in Family part of the center with his mother and sister but yearns for his Ba to arrive, to bring him stories, for he has never met him. His maá has been lying in bed, barely eating. Subhi is a dreamer, at night he dreams that items that float up to the tent are gifts from his Ba. Like a seashell that he holds up to his ear to listen for his Ba’s voice. He also savors stories, having learned to read when there was still a school at the center. His Maá used to tell him about life in Burma, about having their house burnt and not being allowed to go to school and his father being arrested for writing his poems. No more, now she just sleeps.
Subhi’s friend Eli and he share everything, stories, food, whatever. Eli protects him and involves him in running an underground trade market in the camp, but he makes sure that Subhi is safe. That is, until one day Subhi is careless. The detention center is guarded by men who Subhi calls Jackets. Most are brutal and corrupt, especially Beaver, but there is one man named Harvey who befriends Subhi and other kids, learns their names instead of calling them by number and gives them a wading pool on a scorching day.

Alternately the book focuses on Jimmie, a motherless girl who lives on the Outside, outside of the detention center. She lives with her dad and brother. Jimmie wears a bone sparrow necklace that belonged to her mother around her neck and she also has a notebook that her mother wrote, but she can’t read. Subhi also has a connection to sparrows, having seen one on his bed in his tent. His sister Queeny tells him that a sparrow inside the tent is a sign of death.

One night Jimmie sneaks into the detention center. Subhi has gone outside and sees her standing with her backpack, her book and her frizzed hair, so different from everyone in the camp. They begin a friendship based on Subhi’s ability to read her the stories her mother wrote her. This friendship has a remarkable effect on both of them; Jimmie brings him food and hot chocolate, things he has never tasted, and he gives her her mother’s stories. She also helps him get his voice when he needs it most.  With all the heartbreak of this novel, there are moments of humor.  Subhi has a toy duck, the Shakespeare duck, who talks to him and makes droll comments on his situations.

As I began to read this new work by Australian writer Zana Fraillon about a young boy and his mother and sister who live in a detention camp, I thought I was reading a dystopian novel. I decided to look up the term Rohingya, and learned that the Rohingya are a people who live in Burma, Myanmar, who are completely stateless. Myanmar does not recognize them as an ethnic minority, or as citizens, in fact using the name Rohingya by government officials is not permitted. They are referred to as “people who believe in Islam” and are not allowed to own land, receive higher education or to move freely. They are subjected to forced labor for the military. The United Nations calls them “the world’s most persecuted minority.” Many have escaped Myanmar Bangladesh where they are kept in detention camps, while others have escaped by boat to SE Asia. Australia refused to accept any Rohingya refugees, keeping them in camps instead and this motivated Fraillon to write her moving novel.

Given the refugee crises all over the world, this is an important book. Except for recalling the stories his Maá told him about why they had to flee Burma, I got the sense that not everyone in the camp were Rohingya. In a way, Subhi seems like Every Child. His cultural background is not clear to the reader. Perhaps that is because the camp has stripped them of everything, their beliefs and holidays. Subhi, though, has his stories and they give him strength. But in feeling for Subhi, we can empathize with all of the millions of refuges around the world.

My thanks to Disney/Hyperion for giving me permission to read this exceptional book.