Sad but true (and truly sad) story (but totally fictional)

Mud City by Deborah Ellis

I, at risk of revealing myself as both a bad Canadian and a bad children’s librarian, have never read the Breadwinner. But I just read Mud City, which was beautiful and terrible and really, really complex.

My respect for Deborah Ellis is enormous. She writes for kids, but she doesn’t dumb anything down, she doesn’t hide the truth and she doesn’t candy coat anything. Her characters are complex, and even the ones who seem for lack of a better word, evil, are probably not. It’s beautiful, in a stark, upsetting way.

The story is of Shauzia, fourteen years old, who has fled Afghanistan to escape the violence of  Taliban. But she finds herself trapped in a refugee camp, working for Mrs Weera, who runs the Widow’s Compound, where single women and children can live. But she’s unhappy there, and she runs away, hoping to get to France. When she gets to Peshawar, the nearest city, she finds living on her own is much harder then she realized. After working, begging and using her dog Jasper’s tricks to earn her money, she’s arrested, thrown in a boy’s prison and rescued by an American family. She’s able to stay with them for a while, but unable to adapt to their lives or understand the limits of their generosity she winds up back in the refugee camp. There she struggles, with her feelings and confusion about whether she should continue putting herself first or if she should become more like Mrs Weera, who she doesn’t like, and take on the suffering of others as her own. She survives food riots, poverty and a barely functional medical system and in the end, decides that she can help her people too, and sets out to follow Mrs Weera back to Afghanistan to help the refugees who didn’t make it out before the American invasion.

I think the most devastating  and realistic part of the story is the genuine characters. The American family took Shauzia in and were very fond of her, gave her whatever she needed and took care of her. They told her they liked to help people, but after she let in every beggar that came to the door, fed them all and let them sleep in the family’s beds the American family has to return her to the refugee camp. Kindness has it limits, no matter how much you have to spare. The man who beats her and steals her flours does so to feed his own children. Because everyone draws a line, of just how far away from themselves they can carry their ultimate concerns. For this man, it was far enough to protect his starving children, but not far enough to help a stranger’s child.

As a person of relatively extreme privilege (in the I have enough to eat, I get clean water and sanitation, I share my living space with only one other person and absolutely choose that person to share my space, have access to medical attention way not in the I’m rich enough to have my own house kind of way…. geeze I’m just a young librarian)  it’s kind of uncomfortable for me to consider myself in a large world, when Shauzia’s fictional experience is probably a reality for millions of kids. I give just over one hour’s pay once a month to organizations that help other people, but I’m not really directly involved, and when framed in how much money I make versus how much money I give away, it’s pretty hard to feel like I’m doing enough to help the world. I’m less generous then loads of people, but more generous then others.

And it’s all relative too. If Jim Parsons, who apparently makes a million dollars per episode of the the Big Bang Theory, gave away one hour of his pay every month, it would be more then I make in a year. Does that make him a better person then me? And maybe he does. I’ve never met him, but I’m sure he’s a really nice person who probably does try and make the world better. On the other hand, my grandmother lived on old age security and still found the money to support causes she believed in, which makes me think she’d be the most generous of all of us. Still, I don’t feel like I can spare that much more. Would I, if I knew I had enough for a house and children and a summer vacation with my family every year? Or would I always feel like I could only afford one hour’s worth of pay? So kindness has limitations. Generosity has it limits.

And ultimate concerns only extend so far. I fiercely defend my right to be with the person I love, and would probably advocate for my rights if I had to (thankfully I live in a country where I don’t) but that concern hasn’t extended far enough for me to start sponsoring Ugandan refugees who could face life a life sentence in prison for asking for the rights I enjoy. So my ultimate concern is only for me and mine. If my family was starving, would I beat a child to feed them? Obviously,I wish I could say that I never would, but I’m not sure that it’s the truth.

Now, obviously I don’t expect a child to go through all this crazy soul searching. I love kids, and I totally think they are smart and empathetic and capable of thoughts that would astonish adults. On the other hand, they are also people and people are a lot of things, not just symbols, not even of ideas like hope and innocence. But there also isn’t an answer either, so the longer people have to mull it all over the better we all are. Either way, the kids who live like this should get to have their stories told too.

Last movie I watched: DUNE!! Which is actually a TV miniseries and therefore might not count. If it doesn’t count, the last movie might have been About Time. Which is just the most beautiful movie ever.

Last TV episode I watched: This Charmed episode. That one where Phoebe realizes she probably shouldn’t murder people with her power.


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