Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The Day of the Pelican
Have you ever read a book that kept you on edge the entire time and you weren't even sure you were breathing as you read until you took a huge breath as you closed the back cover? That experience happened to me today as I read The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson.
This story was inspired by a refugee family from Kosovo that came to Paterson's town in Barre, Vermont, because they were sponsored by a local church group there. As Paterson learned of their family history and their struggles, she began to write a serial for the newspaper based on the refugee family.
I love this story for many reasons, but the first is the title of the book. The main character of this book, Meli, was doodling and drawing a picture of her teacher as a pelican in her Kosovo classroom. When her friend saw the illustration and realized what it was, it caused both of them to get the giggles, which caused them to get in trouble, and led to both of them having to stay late after school. Meli always walked home from school with her older brother, Mehmet, but on that day he was not waiting for her when she finally left school. Meli assumed Mehmet was angry with her about getting in trouble and had gone home without her. However, when she got home, Mehmet was not home and was nowhere to be found.
What the reader comes to realize when Mehmet does come home several weeks later is that he was taken by some Serbs, put in jail, beaten, and then thrown out in a field to die. That sequence of events changes Mehmet, Meli, and their family in dramatic ways.
Meli's family soon has to leave their apartment and grocery store, the home they've always known, and seek shelter with her uncle's family. However, when they get to the uncle's house, they are told that soldiers are on the prowl, and they can't stay. Uncle Fadil drives them up into the mountains to be near a KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) camp.
As I sit here in my warm house, snowed in for another day, with all the food, clothing and shelter that I need, I am humbled by this story. Meli and her family survived so many difficult situations -- living in a tent in the mountains with a dwindling amount of food, moving back to their uncle's farm only to have Serbian looters come and take their gold and then burn the farm to the ground, walking to the nearest border looking for sanctuary and only carrying the 2 outfits they wore with no food or water whatsoever, being herded like cattle onto freight trains and then put into an internment camp, and being separated from other family members. The inner strength and determination of this family from Kosovo astounds me.
This is a story about the strength of family. It is also a peek into a tragic, though real, event in time. Words like Kosovo, Serbs, Kosovo Liberation Army, President Milosevic, and Albanians have crossed my path in the newspaper. But, until this story, they were just words. Katharine Paterson brings all of that alive in The Day of the Pelican. Real people living through truly dangerous times are depicted here.
When Meli's father (Baba) finally decides they need to leave for America, I was as torn as Meli. I had come to understand the importance of her extended family as well as her love for her homeland. But I also hoped that America would truly be a land of opportunity for this family who had been through so much.
Once in America, Meli's younger siblings were able to learn English quickly, but both Meli's mom and dad had great difficulty. Meli's dad became a dishwasher and eventually, Meli's mom became a maid in a motel, both jobs that didn't require great proficiency with the English language. Her brother, Mehmet, forced himself to learn as quickly as possible, but Meli had trouble for her first year.
But even in America, people can be cruel. 9/11 happened and with it, deep suspicions about the family from Kosovo who were Muslim. Katherine Paterson doesn't end this story with a happily ever after ending, however it was very satisfying.
As much as I loved The Day of the Pelican, I'm not sure all 5th graders would have the maturity necessary to process both the underlying and the obvious violence in the book. However, coupled with the "Historical Note" at the end of the story that explains this time clearly, it is most definitely a book I will put into the hands of some students. I wonder if it will take their breath away in the same way it did for me?