Tuesday, March 12, 2013


We have an on-going discussion in the English department where I teach when we choose a common novel to be read in the English classes during a semester.  Should we choose a novel set in our region, giving our students--many of them reluctant readers--the chance to read a story set in their own familiar territory or should we choose a novel set in another part of the world, letting them become vicarious travelers to places they might not otherwise come to know. In the past, we had chosen Mountains beyond Mountains, the story of Dr. Paul Farmer's work in Haiti. Shortly after, when the devastating earthquake hit that island nation, our students had a  genuine connection and concern.

Since we usually choose a novel in the Spring by our visiting author for the Writers Symposium, the selection is sometimes narrowed by necessity. This spring, for instance, we are reading Wiley Cash's highly successful first novel A Land More Kind than Home, and students are certainly responding positively, even the self-professed nonreaders.

Having just finished Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee, another book that had sad quite awhile on my shelf before I made the time to explore its story, I now lean toward that virtual travel option.  The voice Cleave creates and the story he tells made me think about international immigration issues in a different way.  I've taught long enough to have had lots of experience with students new to this country, often not by their own choice.  I know from their own stories that they were not coming here simply for economic prosperity; many families fled political oppression and life-threatening persecution.

In the novel, Little Bee is a sixteen-year-old Nigerian girl who has spent the last two years trying to stay under the radar at a detention center near London.  A paperwork "mistake" orchestrated by a Jamaican detainee sets Little Bee, the Jamaican, and two other young women free--but without paperwork and with nowhere to go, a microcosm of the United Nations, they joke.

She finds her way to the home of a family she met on the beach in Nigeria, an encounter whose details are revealed bit by bit in the narrative, gaining impact.  Her arrival coincides with the suicide of Andrew O'Roark, and she goes that first day with his wife and young son to his funeral.  The story is told alternately by Little Bee and by Sara, O'Roark's wife, the editor of a trendy magazine published in London.  Their son Charlie is going through a phase pretending to be Batman and refusing to wear anything but his costume so he can "fight baddies."

Little Bee's experiences from the detention center, where she realizes she either needs to be beautiful or to know English to survive--and chooses English, on her journey to Kingston on the Thames, and the back story in Nigeria, are heartbreaking. I was awestruck by her cool, calculating mind as she constantly surveys her changing environment, looking for the best way to kill herself if "the men come." 

The book is a story or survival and of sacrifice, and the characters are forced to make life-changing, momentous decisions at a moment's notice.  I suspect that Little Bee's voice will remain in my ear as the immigration debates continue.  I  realize how many difficulties arise when procedure meets individuals.

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