Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A New Beginning: The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

It was so hot that Meli found herself nodding as Mr. Uka droned on and on. To keep awake, she began to study the teacher's nose. It was so big. It occurred to her that Mr. Uka reminded her of a pelican. In her boredom, she drew a picture of a pelican that looked surprisingly like Mr. Uka. Zana, who shared her desk, began to giggle. It was contagious. Meli couldn't help herself.

"Zana, Meli, come to the front, "said Mr. Uka.

Don't let him see the resemblance, Meli thought.

"Very clever," he said. "But what do pelicans have to do with the history of Kosovo?
I would like the two of you to stay after school to catch up on history."

Meli soon has cause to regret this moment of misbehavior. When she and Zana are finally dismissed, her big brother, thirteen-year-old Mehmet, who is supposed to escort her home, has left, and when she reaches home, there is no sign of him.

Mehmet has disappeared, and the family finally learns that their fears are justified. Like many other Kosovar men and teenagers, Mehmet has been taken by the Serbian police. It is many months before he suddenly appears at their door one night, thin, worn, and very bitter against the Serbs who beat him and left him for dead in the mountains. Rescued by the guerrillas of the KLA, the Kosovar Liberation Army, Mehmet is filled with deadly resentment and makes no secret of his desire to join the KLA as soon as he is fifteen to take revenge on his captors.

It is 1990, and Milosevic's forces are beginning their program of ethnic cleansing in Armenian Kosovo, and Meli's non-practicing but nominally Muslim family--parents, Mehmet, younger brothers Adil and Isuf,little Vlora, and her uncle's family as well--are swept up in the turbulence. Fleeing their home and then their uncle's nearby farm, the family is stripped of all valuables, their cache of food, and even their extra clothing and blankets, and as the farm burns behind them, with the babies and elderly great-grandmother, they flee to the protection of the KLA in the mountains where they barely survive the winter. From there, as NATO intervenes to stop the slaughter, they move on to a refugee camp in Macedonia, where miraculously they qualify for immigration to the United States, sponsored by a Vermont church.

And then, just as the children begin to settle into school and learn English and their father Baba and mother find makeshift jobs to support them, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, occur, and Meli and Mehmet see the shocked and angry looks of their classmates turn into personal attacks. Meli is at first hurt by her friends' avoidance and finds her anger turning into hatred not unlike that in her brother's hardened heart. Meli and Mehmet quit their school soccer teams in protest, feeling that their teammates are no better than the Serbs they left behind. But then Meli sees where that kind of thinking can lead:

Did those bullies know the damage they had done to someone who was just beginning to heal? Did they care? It was bad enough to feel alone, as Meli did, deserted by the only person she had dared to think of as a friend, but to have such hatred? And yet, and yet, she herself had tasted that corrosive poison. That very afternoon, looking into Brittany's face, she had seen the hated Serbs. Baba was right. Hatred made no sense. They must not let it eat away their souls. They would become like the very ones they hated. She wanted to bang on Mehmet's door and scream at him. Don't let them do this to you!

In the latest from Katherine Paterson, this noted author, a National Book Award and two-time Newbery Award winner (for Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved,)has chosen to write a slim, fast-moving historical novel which sketches forth the story of one Albanian family's escape from persecution into a new beginning in an imperfect but hopeful new life together. Knowing Paterson's power to portray the internal as well as external life of her characters, one may regret that she chooses to tell this story in broad strokes. With time and her undoubted craft, it might have become a gripping duo or trilogy, dipping deeply into Meli's personal history and developing each stage of her pilgrimage. But surely Paterson is aware of her deliberate decision to put the bare bones of her story forth today in this form. Bridging differences is a prominent theme in Paterson's work, and in The Day of the Pelican (Clarion, 2009), her voice in this brief work is itself a timely plea for temperance, for unity of family and community, and for understanding, for tolerance between peoples who find themselves thrust into history together.

After their confrontation with angry teammates, Meli and Mehmet are visited by their coaches from school that night, apologizing for the attacks on them and promising to dismiss the attackers from their teams. Meli's father Baba listens to the translation of their words and responds.

"Tell the kind teachers that it would not be a good thing to remove those boys and girls from their teams. They will only become bitter and hate my children all the more. Tell them my children wish to be respected as fellow teammates and not despised for their heritage. That is the way of the old country. This is America, tell them. In America, everyone has a new beginning."

"Baba is right" Mehmet finally says. "One man does not make a team. We must play together, or there is no game."

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