BY MITALI PERKINS
WATERTOWN, MASSACHUSETTS: CHARLESBRIDGE PUBLISHING, 2010
272 PAGES, ISBN-10: 1580893287, HARDBACK
Bamboo People is a coming-of-age story about two teenage boys caught up in the Burmese government’s brutal regime and its systematic repression of ethnic minority groups. The story touches upon each boy’s struggle to maintain a sense of morality, identity, and compassion in a world filled with cruelty and injustice. It is a tale that addresses current conditions of human rights abuse and inequality inside Burma; it would be an effective novel to use in the classroom to engage and teach about these issues while bringing a greater understanding of Burma and mainland Southeast Asia to young adults.
The story is told in two parts. The first is from the perspective of Chico, the teenage son of a Burmese physician imprisoned without a trial for what the government calls “crimes against the state.” The crimes consist of his medical care for individuals labeled enemies by the government. Chico’s mother is trying to survive without her husband’s income and at the same time trying to protect her only son from being seized by the military and forced into fighting.
Chico loves to read and dreams of being a teacher, but his mother insists that he stay hidden inside their home for his own protection. When he eventually answers an advertisement for teachers, he shows up for the interview only to be met by a hostile group of soldiers who force him at gunpoint into a truck and take him to a recruitment base deep in the jungle. There, Chico is trained in guerilla warfare and sent out on a mission to seize arms from a stronghold belonging to the Christian Karenni tribe, an ethnic minority group forced out of their traditional villages inside Burma and into refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border.
As they proceed on their mission, Chico’s small group wanders off the main path and triggers a land mine, killing Chico’s companions and gravely injuring Chico. Tu Reh, a Karenni boy about the same age as Chico, dis- covers him. Several years before, Tu Reh watched his village burned by the Burmese military, and since that time, he has been in hiding, training to fight for Karenni independence and dreaming of revenge. Tu Reh’s companions urge him to kill Chico, but Tu Reh’s father, a leader of the Karenni resistance, tells him that he must decide for himself what is the right thing to do, and the fragile relationship between the two boys begins as Tu Reh reluctantly saves Chico’s life and returns with him to his camp.
The second part of the story is told from the perspective of Tu Reh, who is torn between loyalty to the Karenni and what he comes to know about the Burmese boy with eyeglasses that he has rescued. Both boys have been told many horrifying stories about the inhuman characteristics and crimes of the other’s ethnic minority group, but as they gradually come to know each other and learn about their personal histories, they are forced to come to terms with their own truths. Tu Reh risks suspicion and ostracism for protecting and caring for Chico but in the process learns to stand up for what he believes is right and for what he envisions for his own, as well as the Karenni, future.
Chico owes his life to Tu Reh and the Karenni villagers who nursed him back to health. He soon realizes that, just like his father, the Karenni are labeled enemies of the state in order to satisfy the political goals and agenda of the ruling Burmese military elite. It turns out that the two boys have more in common than they thought.
Although the vast majority of Burmese military recruits come from poor families with little to no formal education—a government strategy aimed at avoiding resistance from the small Burmese middle class— Perkins’s choice of the educated Chico, who has a soft spot for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, will resonate with young adult readers in the US. Both Chico and Tu Reh must grapple with the adult world of suffering, brutality, warfare, and injustice, but they are also teenagers, falling for the girl next door, sneaking off for a swim in the river, and dreaming of their futures.
Bamboo People is a compelling story, and while there are a few moments of didacticism, Perkins tells the tale with sensitivity and insight. This would be an excellent work of fiction to use in the classroom to engage young adult readers in global human rights issues as well as Southeast Asia-specific content.