The Bone Sparrow
by Zana Fraillon
” If we all sing together, our song can light up the dark. “
Set in a space that could be yesterday, today, or tomorrow, The Bone Sparrow chronicles the life and times of a young boy living in a detention camp for refugees in Australia. Not knowing how long he and his family will reside there, Subhi knows one thing from the number he was given upon his arrival — #012DAR1 means that he was the very first child to be born into the camp, reinforcing his personal belief that he is somehow special and holds inside him a singular purpose to an otherwise mundane existence.
Because his mother and sister were forced to flee Burma while Subhi was still carefully secured in the womb, he has never known anything other than the razor-wire trimmed fences and strict rules of the camp he calls home. As members of the Rohingya people, Subhi’s tribal heritage and family lineage is no stranger to war, hatred, and prejudice. The people of the Rohingya have lived the majority of their lives in a state of fear and persecution, never able to settle permanently or have a true place to call their own due to their deprivation of a right to free movement. It is a state of being that has unfortunately continued from ancient into modern times in a way that is at its core primitive and nonsensical for a world like today’s . . . when nations and countries are by nature a melting pot full to the brim of different cultures, races, religions, and sexes, it is hard to believe that things such as a blatant and unjust demonization of an entire people is going on. But, basic human decency and rights notwithstanding, this camp is the reality for Subhi’s family. And for the rest of the unwanted Rohingya people, the seemingly endless search for a place of belonging is the reason that they fled to what they hoped was higher ground and a soft shoulder in Australia and other countries. What they found instead was another story altogether.
Subhi’s juvenile mind wanders to the world outside of the gates often; he imagines riches and jewels and freedoms. He dreams of education and schools and . . . normal friends. One dream dominates his waking and slumbering thoughts, and that is the wish for his father to return. He longs to meet the man who helped create him, and holds a special hope in his heart that one day he will be able to listen to his father tell him stories of the old country and tales of the great beyond.
The boy also sees other things, and some of them threaten to unsettle him. Subhi begins to take notice of an undercurrent of hostility flowing like carefully harnessed electricity throughout the elder members of the camp and among those who have been behind the fences for an extended period of time. There are many in the detention camp that know exactly what they left behind and what the real world is full of, and they know what is really going on inside the walls of their makeshift prison — the refugees are being treated as nothing more than a pack of wild animals. Nothing better than dogs. They are not wanted, not inside the camp nor outside its borders.
Subhi doesn’t know any better, regardless of what he hears through stories passed around the camp. He knows that his sister, the sassy Queenie, harbors a rebellious spirit and low esteem for those who guard the refugees, but Subhi can’t say the same for himself. A few of the guards are quite pleasant to be around, bringing in plastic pools for the young children to splash in on days that are blisteringly hot or sneaking writing paper and colored pencils in for a special birthday. But Queenie and the majority of the refugees don’t share Subhi’s innocent optimism or sweet lack of reality, and the discontent is brewing trouble by way of a hidden simmer. There are some who don’t view having to pick other people’s teeth, worms, hair, or mold out of their food as a true existence. They want and need change. They desire a true life worth living.
For the reader, the perspective is more in line with the viewpoint shared by Queenie and the elder refugees. We can see that Subhi is living a life that is barely one step above squalor, and that he is being treated beyond poorly. We can see that he is a prisoner in a jail made of a government’s misguided device, and we can see the cruelty of it. We, from the comforts of our homes and surrounded by our children who have full bellies and warm beds, can feel the anger rising in us. As Subhi wastes his childhood years away in a tent that he shares with 100’s of other people from all walks of life, our hearts break for him and for his mother and sister. His mother, a woman who had to leave her husband and her culture and her religion behind to flee to another country in the hopes of bringing her children salvation, has instead had to watch as her two most precious possessions fail to flourish in their stifled environment.
But there is one glimmer of hope, and it comes in the form of a young girl who lives just outside the razor-wired fences, up past the gum tree and in a house that boasts a mailbox made of Legos and a lemon tree out back. Jimmie is a dreamer as well, and while Subhi dreams of a father he has never met, she dreams of a mother she remembers a vividly as the blue of the Australian sky. Her mother used to tell her stories of their ancestors, and if she can think back far enough, she can still pull memories of the legend surrounding the carved bone sparrow that hangs around her neck. Her mother passed the necklace on to her daughter right before she passed onto the afterlife, and Jimmie treats this and the book of her mother’s writings that were left behind as her own personal talismans. They are pieces of her mother left behind, and the bone sparrow will guide Jimmie to a friend who will help her bring her deepest wishes into fruition.
The Bone Sparrow is by Zana Fraillon, an Australian native who spent time in California as a young girl. A book that has won and been nominated for a multitude of prestigious awards, The Bone Sparrow is immensely relevant in today’s space and time. Told from a perspective of the innocent, it never comes across as preachy or self-serving but instead, leaves readers with an awareness that almost borders on the uncomfortable as we wonder what we can do to help. As the world pushes refugees from one hell to the next, why are we not stepping up as humans to help those in need? As the pastor Martin Niemöller so wisely wrote, “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Giving the thought-provoking and sometimes chilling novel The Bone Sparrow 5 out of 5 stars, I recommend it to readers of ages 12 and up, and urge the adults in those readers lives to educate them on the importance of change and kindness. The ways of the world of the future lies within the minds, hopes, and capabilities of the young, and they need a strong guiding hand to help them accomplish their goals and provide true freedom for the world we all live in.