While none of the countries have names, this book reads like a civil war in the not-so-distant past of our world history. The third-person narrative is a little jarring at first between the confusion Malik feels at being displaced from his home and family, and the lack of concrete details such as a set time-period. However, as the story progresses, so does Malik’s voice and I felt more comfortable with the ambiguousness of time and place.
Walter crafts a book that is both sensitive to the topic of war, but also doesn’t shy away from the pain of being a refugee. Malik starts his journey full of questions: Where will they live? When will his mother find them? When can they go home? His grandfather assures Malik that all will be well, and that they’ll be safe once they’re on the boat, but just as Malik doesn’t quite believe his grandfather’s bravado, neither does the reader. I found myself tense through the entire first section of this book, especially when Papa decides to trust two of his old business associates with his only means of security: a diamond set into his tooth. While the men help him extract the tooth in what is easily one of the most graphic scenes in the book, the men also help themselves to the diamond leaving Malik and Papa stranded.
The style of writing, while graphic, isn’t too frightening, making this book a good read for younger children. However, I found that the pacing of the story moved very slowly. While this added to the tension and the waiting game that Malik and Papa play, it also made it difficult for me to fully connect with the story. I enjoyed the third section of this book the most, as it fully demonstrated Malik’s anger and fear at being alone in a new place without his family. He arrives as an orphan, but I was pleasantly surprised at how this book resolved itself. Malik is given over to a woman who was herself a former refugee. She is quirky and patient, and she doesn’t try to take away any of Malik’s newfound independence from his crossing.
This book tackles some big issues, war being the most oppressive throughout, but I walked away from this book with a sense of hope that even in a bad situation, things can get better. He gives Malik an unending sense of curiosity and compassion, all while reminding the reader that some stories don’t have a happy ending in the time of war. Malik’s unrelenting tenacity gives him the spirit to keep asking hard questions, such as the whereabouts of his mother, producing answers that are both heartbreaking and full of hope. This book is a good read for anyone wanting to understand the emotions of life as a refugee - a book full of the tragedies as well as the triumphs of beginning again.