Do the right thing

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Jo Klaces explores novels that bring global events close to home

Ruby Tanya

By Robert Swindells

Doubleday, pound;10.9

9 Peace Weavers

By Julia Jarman

Andersen Press, pound;9.99

Throwaway Daughter

By Ting-Xing Ye

Faber pound;6.99 Mud City

By Deborah Ellis

Oxford University Press, pound;4.99

Each of these books has conflict at its core. Differences of opinion about race, war and ways to achieve and sustain peace are played out within four walls between children, parents and surrogates, boyfriends and girlfriends; while outside the world tears itself apart.

Ruby Tanya, the eponymous heroine of Robert Swindells' book, was named by her patriotic father to rhyme with "Rule Britannia", which speaks volumes about his approach to race relations, and immigration in particular. He favours the apartheid model of social organisation. His daughter is not in sympathy with his views and becomes close friends with Asra, a Muslim refugee from an unspecified place of violent conflict.

The story is told alternately by Ruby Tanya and Asra, the latter giving us frequent glimpses into the everyday violence that she has been used to.

Ruby Tanya's father becomes enmeshed in a British National Party plot to discredit the refugees; his daughter discovers the plan and works with Asra to foil it.

This book guides young readers towards a broader understanding of some of the forces behind immigration, gives a realistic glimpse into conditions in a refugee camp in Britain and provides a gently persuasive argument for doing the right thing, even if that leads you into conflict with your family.

Peace Weavers is played out against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq.

Hilde and her brother have been sent to stay with their father, a librarian on a US Air Force base in the UK, while their mother is in Iraq, campaigning against the war. Hilde, who is disposed to harsh judgements, despises her father as she feels he abandoned his children and hates the Americans for their part in the conflict. To avoid fraternising with either she joins an archaeological dig that's taking place in the camp. A brooch that she unintentionally removes from the dig puts her in psychic contact with Mathilde, a sixth-century "peace weaver" who structures peace between two warring communities through the marriage she negotiates: a marriage of strength rather than convenience in which she finds fulfilment and enduring love.

The engaging story alternates between the compromises that Mathilde arrived at and the effort that Hilde has to make to broker an understanding with her father, make her own effective anti-war protest and follow the unlikely path that love forges for her with the son of a US airman killed by friendly fire. Hilde learns that the personal is political, that weaving family relationships is almost as delicate, important and difficult as weaving global harmony.

Grace Parker, the Throwaway Daughter of the book's title, is a Chinese girl adopted as a baby by a Canadian family. All through her early years and teens she scorns her Chinese heritage and refuses to acknowledge her Chinese name, Dong Mei, which her adoptive mother has insisted she keep.

Just like Hilde in Peace Weavers, Grace is prone to sweeping judgements; she condemns her birth mother for abandoning her and scorns all things Chinese. However, as events in Tiananmen Square play out on television and Grace sees for herself the forces of repression overtly at work, she reconsiders her attitudes and decides to seek out her birth mother. In following Grace's journey readers learn about the terrible consequences for girl babies and their mothers of the one-child-only policy in China and, with Grace, come to an appreciation of her birth mother's enforced sacrifice.

Mud City is a refugee camp in Pakistan. Shauzia, introduced in Deborah Ellis's earlier novels, The Breadwinner and Parvana's Journey, lives there dreaming of lavender fields in France. She too is forced to re-evaluate her aspirations and prejudices as she faces the everyday realities of hunger, exploitation and violence. In the end, she opts to return to Afghanistan to help those sick, injured and displaced in the new waves of bombing. This book is for a slightly younger reader than the other three, but does not shirk from giving informed and graphic descriptions of the horrors of life on the streets for a young refugee.

These are all absorbing novels and necessary books dealing with global issues that are threateningly omnipresent. Each of these girls ends up doing what their conscience tells them is right. Young and old readers need such optimism in our terrifying world.

Jo Klaces is on sabbatical from teaching English at St Philip's sixth-form centre Birmingham

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