By Maureen Tai, 17 August 2018
“I shake my head.
I say, This America is hard work.” – Kek
Kek is a Sudanese boy adrift in the world. He witnesses the murder of his father and brother. His mother’s whereabouts are unknown. A bewildering stint at a refugee camp is followed by an even more unsettling relocation by “flying boat” to America. Burdened by his losses, Kek learns to keep his hope alive as he adjusts to life in America.
Home of the Brave is Kek’s story.
Kek and his family belong to a tribe of cattle herders. He adores their nomadic way of life, moving with the seasons to where their precious cows can find food and water. After losing most of his family in the war, Kek is reunited with his maternal aunt and her son, Ganwar, in America.
Minnesota is a bewildering place, with trees that “die” in the winter, electric lights that come alive at the push of a switch, a “magic water pot” which fills with hot water in the special bathing room in his aunt’s house, and cold, wet snow. His aunt works shifts at a nursing home and is tired all the time. His cousin, who lost an arm in the war in Sudan, is sullen and withdrawn, nursing bleak views of their life in America.
But Kek’s naturally joyful spirit is irrepressible. He jumps and falls, jumps and falls, on the bouncy “blanket cloud” that is his bed. He playfully struts around in his new outfit of jeans and a t-shirt. He announces to his grade five teacher that he is ready to begin his learning. He smiles from ear to ear when he realises that he has his own desk and chair at school for which he does not need to pay in cattle. He unintentionally makes a joke when he has fries and ketchup for the first time in his life, making his classmates, including his new friend, Hannah, laugh. He finds a job after boldly offering to work at a farm, taking care of an ageing, skinny cow whom he names Gol (which means “family” in his language). Kek finds goodness because he sees it in people around him. He finds opportunities because he seeks them out.
Told in narrative verse that is movingly poetic and hauntingly beautiful, this otherwise sorrowful story is lifted by the author’s hands into the realm of the ethereal (see also her other masterpiece, The One and Only Ivan).
Home of the Brave is not just a refugee story. It is a story about losing one’s home, and finding a new one. It is a story about finding a place to belong in a land of strangers. It is a story about being kind and compassionate to those who are lost. It truly is a story for our times.
For ages 8 and above.