The Plot: Present day Burma. Chiko, fifteen and bookish, responds to an ad for teachers and discovers it’s a scam by the military to force teenage boys into the army. Making it even worse is that his father was arrested four months ago and labelled a traitor for providing medical treatment to an “enemy of the state.” He is now in the army of the same government who has put his father in prison. There is no escape, just enduring his time and finding some small comfort in knowing that his pay helps his mother, now alone with no income.
Tu Reh also is a teenage boy; he is a Karenni, an ethnic minority in Burma, the target of the army. He and his family live in a refuge camp because his Karenni village was burnt to the ground. A friend’s mother died from forced labor; a teenage girl was captured by the army and tortured. Tu Reh wants to fight for Karenni independence, wants to fight the Burmese, wants to take his anger out in action.
The paths of Chiko and Tu Reh cross. A reluctant boy soldier, an angry fighter.
The Good: The first half of the book is told from Chiko’s point of view; the second, from Tu Reh. First we meet Chiko, a lover of books and learning, an only child raised in the city, the son of a doctor. He isn’t spoiled, but he is protected and safe and limited in his worldview. Upon hearing someone else in town speak, he thinks “their street accent grates on my ears.” With this quick phrase, Perkins reveals Chiko’s isolation and prejudices. Chiko is about to encounter much worse than accents.
Army training is brutal; the captain bullies the handful of teenage boys who, like, Chiko, were grabbed off the streets. Fighting and physical punishments are the norm. Tai, the street urchin whose accent so bothered Chiko, becomes Chiko’s friend, helping him learn how to take a beating without getting hurt. In return, Chiko teaches Tai to read and write. Chiko — whose knowledge of courage came from books — learns what true courage and loyalty is when he has an opportunity to save himself from army life. Should he take it? Can he abandon Tai?
The second half of the book belongs to Tu Reh. He is in the jungle, helping his father carry medical supplies to the Karenni hiding from the Burmese. He wants action, he wants to do something, he wants revenge. He wants to kill the soldiers who have inflicted such hardships, such suffering on his people. Tu Reh thinks this is bravery, this is noble, this is doing the right thing. Is it? His father gives him a choice — the freedom to make a choice — to see what kind of man he is. This choice involves the first person in a Burmese army uniform Tu Reh sees. That person, of course, is Chiko.
And with that, my description of plot ends. Because, you know, spoilers. These two opposites, apparent enemies, who don’t even share a language — the city boy, the village rebel — forge an unlikely friendship.
A book like Bamboo People, which introduces not one but two different cultures, can be tricky. How to avoid the awkward infodump? Perkins weaves information about language, food, customs and religion into the story so it’s informative without being awkward. Food is shown: “I squeeze lime over my food and start eating.” Later Tu Reh thinks, “Peh places both hands on my shoulders. I try not to show my surprise, but we both know that fathers only do this once or twice in a son’s lifetime.” The reader learns what Tu Reh calls his father, as well as typical father/son interactions for their culture.
Perkins crafts the story so that while older readers realize just how bad some things are, younger readers won’t realize what they are not ready for. For example, it’s pretty clear that an older teen who was tortured by soldiers was also raped, but that is never explicitly said.
Librarians and teachers will like Bamboo People because it’s a welcome addition to collections. It’s about Burma, told from an insider point of view. It’s a great book for class and book group discussion, about Burma, about politics, about choices. Perkins has a website, Bamboo People, with topical resources.
Truthfully, though, while some readers look specifically for books set in other countries, others do not. Many books have multiple points of entry to connect with a reader. For those readers, Bamboo People is also about teen soldiers: “Imagine going to a job interview and, instead, being dragged into a bus and forced into the army?” It is about survival, surviving the army, surviving the jungle, surviving the enemy.
Bamboo People is also about one of my favorite plot devices: two enemies becoming friends by discovering what they have in common. I was reminded of The Matarese Circle, Robert Ludlum’s story of a CIA spy and KGB agent who start as enemies but realize the true enemy is not each other. Except, of course, Bamboo People isn’t about spies and world conspiracies. And in Bamboo People, from the start Chiko and Tu Reh aren’t that different, really. Neither is exactly a supporter of the Burmese government, but for different reasons. Each has to find out for himself what “courage” really means. Each matures. Each, also, has a romance that is played out within the norms of their society. Chiko likes the daughter of a neighbor; their relationship is comprised of shy smiles, a photograph given to Chiko, the hope of her mother’s approval. Tu Reh, also, has a girl he likes. When he dreams of her, it’s of them sharing a life together. Perkins does not impose American values about love, courtship, and dating on the interactions these young men have with the young women they like.