This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.
Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere, getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime. These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition. The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert, to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.
These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death. They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.
“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself. Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”
And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest. In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.
“Unreal desert. Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many. None thought the trains would bring so many. Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”
In one scene as children cross the desert a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children. They two groups will not know each other. They will never meet. But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb. He is being “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth. “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”
In a parallel storyline and universe a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost: the Apaches, the children. A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’. At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.
Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading thousands of acres of poetry.
But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book. For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before – short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids. But I asked around, found some teen fiction titles and read them.
Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group? Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story? But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?
This is Book 5 of A Volatile Summer of Reading for my ten books of summer.