War. Child soldiers. A boy of fifteen forced against his will to join the army. Bamboo People is a novel by Indian author Mitali Perkins. It offers an intimate peek into the Coming-of-Age experiences of two teenagers who experience the horrors of the civil war in Burma (a small independent state that borders India and Thailand). Ethnic cleansing, child labor, slavery, human trafficking and a lack of freedom of speech are just few of the issues addressed in the story.
The first half of the novel is narrated in the first person by Chico, a 15-year-old boy whose father has been thrown into jail by the ruling military class, as an enemy of the state. Chico wants to become a teacher but, abducted from his city, he is shipped to a Burmese Army training camp. In a memoir-like fashion, the young teen describes the struggles, trials and tribulations he faces at the military camp.
The second half introduces a new narrator, Tu Reh, a Karenni boy whose village was burned down by the Burmese Army. Unlike Chico, he wants to fight as he’s hungry for revenge. The paths of Chico and Tu Reh cross on the battle field.
The subject matter is controversial, but I found the character development to be rather weak. This is especially true for Tu Reh as, while one gets some idea of Chico’s personality and motivation, in Tu Reh’s case his character remains under developed throughout the story. As a result of the weak character development, I was never fully able to associate with the young protagonists – an experience I consider essential for any rite-of-passage narrative.
Bamboo People is the first book with male protagonists for Mitali Perkins, an author whose novels typically focus on South Asian girls. While I have seen films and read books about boyhood Coming-of-Age experiences written and directed with much success by women, in this instance I believe that Mrs. Perkins lacked knowledge of the masculine youth mentality, which affected the effectiveness of her character development.
While overall the experience of reading Bamboo People was a positive one, I struggled to find any passage or phrase worth quoting for the purpose of this review. That is why I have some reservations about recommending the novel.
Bamboo People Book Trailer