A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell
|A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell|
|Category: Confident Readers|
|Reviewer: Tanja Jennings|
|Summary: Poignant, powerful, thought provoking and meticulously researched story of a Kurdish family forced to flee Syria. Mitchell sensitively explores the devastation, damage, suffering and fear experienced by refugees whose lives have been blown apart by war.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 240||Date: February 2017|
|Publisher: Little Island|
|External links: Author's website|
Award winning author Jane Mitchell passionately believes in using literature as a conduit to highlight Human Rights' issues that children need to understand and talk about. She explains, Children hear the political rhetoric on the right side and the left side – that we should open our doors and let everybody in, versus we should build barriers, we should build walls, we should ban people. And children are struggling to make sense of it, adults are struggling to make sense of it, we don't know what approach to take and what our views are because this is new, this is completely different to all of us. 'A Dangerous Crossing' gets to the heart of the matter.
Her book is particularly effective and empathetic because it enables the reader to visualise the horror and stark reality of despair as people are torn from their homes and everything they know by the brutality of war. Their raison d'être is to try desperately to protect their families and stay together. All they need is sanctuary and freedom from terror. The unfortunate truth is that these families have been forced into exile by circumstances beyond their control. They exist on a knife edge of uncertainty of what the future will hold. As Mitchell's protagonist Ghalib, wise and brave beyond his 13 years, says, When our dreams are dead, Baba. When we are forced to fight or die. Then surely it must be time to leave.
This young teen's dilemma is told in the first person. The narrative style amplifies the emotional impact of his story on the reader. He is part of the Shenu family who live in Kobani, a city near Aleppo in Syria, and south of the border with Turkey. Ghalib's father is a gentle doctor who exists to care for others, his gran (Tata) dreads leaving the country she has loved all her life, Umi (his mother) vows to safeguard her family while his tetchy sister Bushra wants to be an engineer and is angry that in their culture girls are treated differently to boys. Ghalib also feels responsible for his younger brother Aylan who clings to him and is particularly precious as he was born disabled due to trauma amidst prolonged bombing:
His little hooked arm is curled tight against his body like an extraordinary seashell, pale and fragile and broken.
Tension is palpable from the start as Ghalib, coerced by his wilful cousin Hamza, risks his life by going out on the streets at night where the stench of rotting rubbish mixes with smoke and pulverised concrete, smashed up sewers and rot. Not only are the boys in danger from enforced recruitment by the People's Protection Units but Barrel bombs are also raining death from the blackened skies.
Ghalib is soon severely tested and shaken to the core by ensuing events. He embarks on a precarious and arduous journey with his family as they resolve to travel to Turkey and attempt a perilous sea crossing to the Greek Islands. This decision exposes the Shenus to unforeseen dangers, exploitation and discrimination. Along the way they meet the wary, defiant and tenacious Safaa, an Armenian girl who makes a lasting impression on Ghalib. But what secret is she attempting to hide? What happens to the Shenus as they arrive at a place redolent with despondency? What are their options as they try to cross the heavily guarded border checkpoint? Will they be separated? Can they find sustenance and refuge anywhere? Do they have the strength to travel and endure hellish scenarios? Will they be able to start new lives? Will they be met with welcome or scorn? Ghalib must face more obstacles before their goal is in sight.
Mitchell's novel breathes with authenticity as it is based on the trials and tribulations of real Syrian families. As part of her research, she interviewed Syrians living in Dublin (who gave her a perspective on what the country was like pre-war) and volunteered at the notorious Jungle Camp in Calais, home to 6, 000 migrants at the time. She elaborates, They are humans who are just in awful situations, and it could happen to us. And once you engage with them, a smile crosses any boundaries, any barriers it doesn't matter what language they speak – there were people from Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. And I didn't speak their language but you'd give them a smile and a pat on the back or shake their hand.
Her descriptions of the conditions are evocative and frightening because they reflect the reality of the current global refugee crisis: Everywhere is littered with torn food packages, babies' nappies, empty water bottles and spent cigarettes, dirty tissues, plastic bags. The stink of human waste and rotten food and other smells mingle together. No shelter. No kitchens. No shops or market. Just dry, empty land stretching as far as the horizon.
Mitchell's story charts how displaced persons are vulnerable to kidnappers and slave traffickers in refugee camps, can be stripped of their belongings and money by menacing and ruthless smugglers, deprived of adequate sustenance and water, and suffer from a lack of vital medicines, increased stress, anxiety, fatigue and hysteria. She was particularly affected by the endless news reports about desperate families in overcrowded and leaky crafts, of small bodies fished from the deep, of deflated boats and lost families. Herded on to unseaworthy crafts they are treated like cattle. The more people crammed into the boat, the more money extorted by opportunists. Mitchell's effective use of personification brings the horror of the refugees' predicament to life:
The strong salty ocean rushes at us in pale broken rages. It paws the dark shore like an animal about to charge.
Her style is measured and she uses vivid imagery to create awareness and set up a space for dialogue. The result is a perceptive portrayal of the Syrian conflict and its decimation of its citizens' lives. To borrow a phrase from Lionel Shriver, we need to talk about this. As Amnesty International's Nicky Parker concurs, books need to uphold our common humanity, starting with proper representation of voices from all sectors of society. (Cilip Update, 2017). 'A Dangerous Crossing' ensures that the voices of Syrian children who are victims of the conflict are remembered especially since Mitchell honours them by giving their names (taken from a list put online by the Syrian Network of Human Rights) to her characters.
Tragically in real life five year old Ghalib and his three year old brother, of Kurdish ethnicity, made national headlines when they perished in the Mediterranean Sea. If you want to discover the fate of their fictional counterparts then read this memorable book which stays with you after the final chapter. A glossary and an author's note provide more background for the inquisitive mind.
Jane Mitchell's insightful novel is just one children's book which highlights the current humanitarian catastrophe. Another must read is the beautifully observed The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon which examines the plight of the Rohingya people of Myanmar (formerly Burma) detained in an Australian camp. The graphic novel Alpha by Bessora, Barroux and Sarah Ardizzone (translator) documents a man's flight from Africa to France in search of his wife and child, Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird set in Bosra also sheds light on the traumatic Syrian Civil War.
Children caught in conflict zones are also susceptible to enforced recruitment by violent rebels. If you would like to know more about this abuse of Human Rights you can read about the plight of child soldiers in Kashmir in Chalkline by Jane Mitchell and the dangers of life on the African Savannah in The Child's Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston. For more on the exploitation migrants face Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick shines a spotlight on corruption in Mexico. The heart-breaking image of a tiny body cast out onto unforgiving waves also conjures up another story, that of the Vietnamese Boat People in 1975, which is relived in Ru by Kim Thuy and Sheila Fischman (translator).
Alternatively, if you wish to research the effects of global displacement and hear the voices of the persecuted immerse yourself in The Refuge and the Fortress: Britain and the Flight From Tyranny by Jeremy Seabrook or experience the thought provoking anthology Another Sky: Voices of Conscience from Around the World by Lucy Popescu and Carole Seymour-Jones.
You can read more book reviews or buy A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell at Amazon.com.
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