A momentously important true story—rife with culture, faith, familial bonds, and astounding bravery.
Although this book is touted as a memoir, I feel it would be more accurate to describe it as an autobiography—as it attempts to cover Malala’s story from birth, through her school years while the Taliban gradually asphyxiated her beloved Swat Valley, all the way through to the day that lives in infamy to the consciousness of much of the world. The day the Taliban boarded a school bus, asked “Who is Malala?” and shot a 15-year-old girl in the head. The title of the book fittingly answers the question of the man sent to murder her.
Malala was named for Malalai of Maiwand, a great heroine of Afghanistan. Though she was born into a segment of Pakistani culture (Pashtun) that celebrates the birth of a son and offers only condolences on the birth of a girl, her father was immediately taken with his first surviving child. There are times when this book feels as though it is as much her father’s story as it is hers. And rightly so, as Ziauddin Yousafzai’s impact on his daughter runs to a depth most parents could only hope to attain in their children.
“He believed that lack of education was the root of all of Pakistan’s problems. Ignorance allowed politicians to fool people and bad administrators to be re-elected.”
Her father’s background was more intriguing than this reader could have imagined. As a young man he was, it seems, well on his way to being recruited as a militant—even willing to consider acting as a suicide bomber. But meeting his future wife and refocusing his attention altered that course of his life, ultimately leading him to moderate views, along with an avid dedication to children’s education. Indeed, this loving father was willing to die in the service of defending the right to education. He expected to be killed, and refused bodyguards out of concern that it would make it more likely bystanders would be killed rather than just him. What he didn’t expect was that the Taliban would go after his young daughter instead.
Malala’s voice itself oscillates between simple (with a clear sense that English is not her language) to deep and gentle moments of profundity that borders on poeticism.
“We human beings don't realize how great God is. He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes which see a world of colours and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, and two ears to hear the words of love. As I found with my ear, no one knows how much power they have in their each and every organ until they lose one.”
Her faith is also conveyed with a remarkable degree of regularity and authenticity. In her younger years she asks the candid questions a child in her situation would and should ask, finding answers for some and pondering others over time. As Malala passes into adolescence her prayers and interactions grapple more with how differently her oppressors view God from how she’s come to perceive Him. While her situation becomes increasingly tense with ever encroaching danger, her adherence to courage and activism stems directly from her Faith. Her conclusion about the attempt on her life is both powerful and difficult to argue with:
“A Talib fires three shots at point-blank range at three girls in a van and doesn’t kill any of them . . . I know God stopped me from going to the grave. It feels like this life is a second life. People prayed to God to spare me, and I was spared for a reason—to use my life for helping people."
While Malala is clearly an exceptional girl, it’s the more mundane details of her life that make her so vitally relatable. This is a teenage girl who fights with her younger brothers, loves Bollywood movies, and makes several scattered references to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books. Her love for learning permeates nearly all aspects of her life in a way that is earnest rather than intellectually arrogant. In American culture, she would be considered charmingly nerdy:
“We liked to be known as the clever girls. When we decorated our hands with henna for holidays and weddings, we drew calculus and chemical formulae instead of flowers and butterflies.”
By the time we reach the 80% mark, and the full recounting of the day she was shot, readers are lurched out of the historical lull and into the gut-wrenching horror of Taliban aggression. Despite knowing from an intellectual and newsworthy standpoint what happened, I was emotionally overwhelmed in waves that left me having to put the book down just to recover my composure. This was happening to someone who I now felt like I knew and loved. It didn’t matter that I also knew how this part of Malala’s story would ultimately turn out.
Prose Note: The manner of telling was sometimes a bit disjointed. The first 20% and last 20% stood out head and shoulders above the middle innards of the book in terms of pacing and ability to grip the reader’s interest. The middle, unfortunately, sags under the weight of so much in-depth politics and minutia regarding the history of the relatively young country that is Pakistan. The decaying sequence of events leading up to Taliban control are certainly relevant to helping readers (Westerners in particular) understand how events unfolded—how the Taliban took over and altered things at slow enough increments that most of the population didn’t realize how much they were losing until schools were bombed and people murdered in broad daylight. (The proverbial ‘boiling of a frog’ took place in the Swat Valley, and in all of Pakistan.) It’s crucial that people of other nations see how it came about, least they share in a similar fate. I just wish things could have been conveyed with less of a historical documentary-feeling dryness.
(I was VERY glad to find the book has an abridged version available for younger readers. The contents are invaluable, but I’d hate for younger readers to lose interest amid the confusing Pakistani and tribal politics before they have a chance to really strike the human-rights heart of this story. )
“I don't want to be thought of as the "girl who was shot by the Taliban" but the "girl who fought for education." This is the cause to which I want to devote my life.”