Monday, November 03, 2008

Review: Child of Dandelions

Child of Dandelions
Shenaaz Nanji
2008; Front Street; 978-1-932425-93-2 (hardcover)

Summary: Sabine is Ugandan. She's also Indian and Muslim. She's happiest when she's with her best friend, Zena, or dancing, or hiding in the mango tree by her house. All in all, she's a typical teenager. But it is 1972, and President Idi Amin has just announced that all Indians must leave Uganda--and they have ninety days. Sabine's father insists they're Ugandan citizens and should stay; her mother is scared and wants to leave. And Sabine is caught between these two sides that are battling for her beloved Uganda.

Four Things to Know About Child of Dandelions

#1: Some things are universal.

Prior to reading this novel, the most I knew about Uganda was that it is an African country formerly ruled by Idi Amin, the site of events like Operation Entebbe and films like The Last King of Scotland. It was eye-opening to read this novel and see concerns similar to other novels I've read. As is remarked in the novel, the choice of whether to stay or leave echoes the European Jewish mindset prior to World War II. Questions of class warfare and the mixing of the races calls to mind concerns from early twentieth century America. There are some aspects of being human--both for good and for bad--that are repeated over and over throughout the world. The more chances we have to see these similarities, the more we realize how little we are different. And novels such as Child of Dandelions gives us a unique way of making this realization.

#2: Identity is woven from many threads.

Learning more about the cultural background of eastern Africa, in particular Uganda, reminded me of how there are many factors that shape us. Sabine is a Muslim Indian Ugandan; she knows English, Swahili and Gujarati, among other languages. She shops in Little India, has an English headmaster at her school, and her best friend, Zena, is African. Yet for all this, the ethnic groups in Uganda don't mix. After decades of being servants and laborers, the Africans want more, and Idi Amin will give it to them--regardless of the impact on the whole country. But it's only as she's faced with her world ending that Sabine looks at her world and sees how unequal is is. She makes changes, reaching out beyond her class, and while the results are mixed, it could have heralded just one small beginning for Uganda. But instead, Sabine's family ends up leaving Uganda behind and adding a new thread to their identities.

#3: Handicaps are not always limiting.

Sabine is often treated as her father's heir, to the point that he calls her "my brave boy." This isn't because she's the oldest; it's because her little brother, Minaz, has Down Syndrome. Yet just because he has this disability doesn't mean he is ostracized or kept apart. Minaz, or Munchkin as Sabine calls him, is cared for by the whole family with love and devotion. By caring for Minaz, others' true natures are often revealed. Sabine doesn't like Lalita, her mother's friend--she doesn't like Lalita's perfume or the way Lalita talks about Africans. But when disaster strikes Sabine's family, Lalita stands by Sabine and Minaz, caring for him with great dedication. Sabine herself only shows occasionally mild annoyance with her brother, much less than is normally shown between siblings. For a character who can't speak, Minaz helps shape the story as much as Amin or Uganda itself.

#4: There are different ways to create atmosphere.

Often writing is described as sensual or evocative in describing another place and time. While this novel is not as descriptive as ones that receive such adjectives, it does fully transport the reader into this world. I felt that I could really see Uganda--not smell it or taste it, but see it. The fruit trees, the tin-roofed shacks, the play of sun and shade: that's what I took away from this novel. And such mental pictures, in combination with a moving story and well-developed charcters, keeps the reader turning the pages.

Child of Dandelions offers a positive look at a difficult period in the life of a girl, a family, and a country. This is an intriguing novel, one that could be paired with other culture-clash or immigration novels, to offer an example from the recent past.

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