Title: Bamboo People
Author: Mitali Perkins
ISBN: 9781580893282
Pages: 272 pages
Publisher/Date: Charlesbridge, c2010.

It does look like the trail leads through this mess — I notice small crosses carved into the trunks of some of the trees. I’m watching for the markings and pushing my way through thorns and brambles a few minutes later when I hear it.
It’s the loudest crash I’ve ever heard in my life, so loud it almost drowns out the screams and shouts. My companions must have detonated a mine! Why didn’t they stay where they were? I take a few steps in the direction of the noise.
BOOM! (133-134)

Fifteen-year-old Chiko just wants to be a teacher, not a doctor like his imprisoned father and certainly not a soldier like the government wants him to be. But when he’s forced to join the Burmese army and fight for a cause he doesn’t believe in, Chiko finds out that all his book smarts might not be able to save him. Violent events cause him to collide with Tu Reh, an ethnic minority in Burma who is in hiding with his family in a refugee camp on the Thai border. Taking shelter there after Burmese troops burned his village, Tu Reh has no love for this boy soldier who has fallen under his watch. Both boys will be forced to make some sacrifices and hard decisions in order to return home.

This is an eye-opening book about the struggles occurring today in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Before this book, I’ve never heard of the conflict and unrest that has been plaguing that country for years (since before I was born). Perkins paints the scenes in the novel, bringing a country that I have never visited to life, whether it’s the busy street scenes or the quiet forest floor:

We’re already on the outskirts of the ciy and heading north, where rice paddies and coconut trees line the narrow, flat highway. Women are harvesting rice, their bodies bent, their bamboo hats shaped like upside-down bowls. Thin, straight streams sparkle like wires, dividing the wet fields into squares. The last rays of the sun redden, spilling into the water like blood. (32)

 The characters are all beautifully portrayed, and both Tu Reh and Chiko are torn and taxed with what they should do and what is the right thing to do. They aren’t the only ones, as Tu Reh’s friend Sa Reh exhibits another of the multitude of responses and reactions that people could have as a result of the ongoing opposition amongst the two groups.

Both Tue Reh and Chiko have wonderful examples, support, and behavioral guidance in the form of their fathers, who encourage them to think for themselves and follow their hearts rather than the propaganda being passed around. Readers will have a lot to think about as they consider what they might have done in those same situations. There is a spirit of camaraderie and the notion of friendships tested not only between Tue Reh and Sa Reh, but also between Chiko and another boy-soldier Tai as they teach each other survival skills. This also begs the question of which is better, street smarts or book smarts, and there are several examples of both coming into play and taking precedence. In this and other ways, Perkins strikes a balance, making both sides sympathetic to readers.