The novel is arranged into two parts and an epilogue. The first part, entitled “Chiko” is about Chiko, a Burmese boy, whose father was accused of treason and taken as a prisoner. Armed with the knowledge his father has poured in him, and feeling the burden of being the man of the house at fourteen, Chiko tries applying for a job as a teacher. But the interview turns out to be a trap and before he knows it, Chiko is on a jeep bound for service in the army.
This isn’t completely horrible news since Chiko will now be able to send money home to his mother and little sister, but the conditions of his training are brutal. He would never survive if not for his new found friend, Tai, who is a street kid. Tai teaches him how to fight, and more importantly, how to take a hit. Together, they do their best to undermine the Captain’s evil plans for them. Chiko teaches Tai how to read and write, a rare commodity in this third world country, and life goes on. That is, until the Captain decides to use Chiko as a mine clearer in the jungle on a scouting mission. Two explosions are heard and Part One ends with the reader wondering how our protagonist will fare.
Part Two, entitled “Tu Reh”, introduces a new protagonist , a Karenni, who is on a mission with his Peh (father). His Peh has taken him on this mission in the hopes of ridding Tu Reh of the anger he bears the Burmese. They come across Chiko’s injured body, and, spotting this for a teachable moment, Peh allows Tu Reh to decide Chiko’s fate. Conflicted between the hatred for the Burmese and compassion for a boy slightly younger than himself, Tu Reh chooses to take Chiko to the nearby “healer”. After this, “one decision leads to another” as his Peh advises, and soon, Tu Reh is carrying Chiko to his refugee camp along the Thai border. While the elders in camp understand the spirit of Tu Reh’s reasoning for bringing a “spy” into their midst, the council as well as his best friend are less sympathetic. Tu Reh is now an outsider among his own people. Neither Tu Reh nor Chiko will ever be the same.
I expected the title Bamboo People to refer to the strength of these young adults surviving in a world that is coming apart at the seams. I was not disappointed. The symbolism of bamboo occurs throughout the novel and is subtle enough for sophisticated readers to enjoy, and yet obvious enough for young adult readers to realize with a little guidance. What surprised me was how Perkins extended the symbolism beyond the obvious: from the strength of bamboo to its versatility and usefulness. Through this, she delivers the essential message that people are like bamboo. They are each strong in their own way, but each serves a unique purpose.
Perkins provides the context of the setting at the end of the book along with a link to her website where readers can investigate ways to help Myanmar. The message of her novel paired with a way for students to take action make this novel a gem for modern audiences. I came to this reading knowing nothing about Myanmar and knowing the historical context of the fighting there might have been helpful. However, the story can stand alone without that knowledge and the details can be inferred from the context.
In my quest for multicultural literature, reading this book was like hitting the jackpot. A strong story with memorable characters and an uplifting message is a rarity. Rebecca Caudill nominees are usually good reads (that is why they have been nominated) and Bamboo People was no exception. I look forward to reading more from Mitali Perkins. The next thirty-nine books I read have a tough act to follow.
Lisa is the Reading Specialist at a middle school in Tinley Park, Illinois. She has been teaching for eighteen years and earned both a Masters in Reading Specialist and a Masters in Educational Leadership. Books, music, movies, and education are her life!