BCCB - Big Picture, September 2007

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Big Picture

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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Diamonds in the Shadow

by Caroline B. Cooney

Foreign strife can be a challenging subject for fiction; it’s hard to avoid turning a serious story into a dishing out of literary vegetables, but to take the plot too far into the entertainment direction seems cheaply opportunistic. Veteran author Cooney manages to walk the line between the two, effectively combining a thrilleresque plot about blood diamonds with a serious yet accessible exploration of geopolitics and human resilience.

Since the protagonist, Jared, is a privileged Connecticut kid who prides himself on “being a rather annoying teenager,” he’s predictably affronted when his do-gooder mother volunteers their home, including Jared’s own room, to house a family of four African refugees, parents with a son and daughter. The arrival of the Amabo family forces Jared to consider world affairs and cosmic questions of justice that he’s avoided so far, but he also finds himself increasingly suspicious of their story. His suspicions are justified: these aren’t actually the Amabos but refugees used as pawns to smuggle diamonds, but they’re caught up in a web of victimization, criminality, and blackmail that means no one, not even Jared and his family, can escape untouched.

Geopolitically speaking, Cooney has made some interesting decisions in her plotting. The story justifies the vagueness about African locations with the Amabos’ need for deception, but the contents of the author’s note suggest that it’s a deliberate technique to make the narrative representative of more than just the diamond controversy: the note talks about her hosting of refugees from Sierra Leone during that country’s recent civil war, yet its main focus is the war in Darfur and the refugee dilemma in neighboring Chad. The story itself is also less concerned with the diamonds as objects than the human price paid during internecine conflict, a price dramatically illustrated up front by Andre Amabo, whose hands were savagely cut off by the rebels. The book refuses to reduce the situation to a simple tale of good and evil, though, striding immediately into the ethical ambiguities of the situation with the refugee society representative’s illusion-puncturing assertion that “you are probably not saving the innocent, because in a civil war, nobody is innocent.” The Amabos’ sinister pursuer, separated from them by bureaucracy but determined to retrieve his valuable property, is a frightening and effective villain, but they’re beset internally as well, with silent young Alake an outcast in the pretend family for her forced alliance with the militia, a past for which even she’s unable to forgive herself.

The contrast between their experiences and that of their privileged hosts is absurdly extreme, but the book intelligently acknowledges the reality of that gulf. Jared and his fluffy little sister, Mopsy, make terrific audience surrogates, modeling believable responses ranging from distaste to ignorance to heedless benevolence. They’re cleverly crafted, since their personalities advance plot and exposition, but they’re also credible as fully drawn, normal yet multifaceted characters, which makes their encounter with the horrors of the world particularly thought-provoking as they find their comfortable views of faith and humanity shaken. Yet Cooney complicates the picture of America with a backstory involving a church fundraiser and family friend who gambled away nearly a million donated dollars, setting the issues of trust and betrayal up from the beginning and emphasizing their universality.

Ultimately, this isn’t a nonfiction exploration of postcolonial African unrest but an absorbing story. As such, it’s less a deliverer of facts than of proximity; the book takes a problem whose impact is hampered by its distance and brings it up close and personal to its readers. Even kids who’ve never heard of Darfur will find the dramatic story an eye-opener, while their more aware classmates will appreciate this personalized approach to a vast problem.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor


Big Picture Image

Cover image by Jan Greune from Diamonds in the Shadow ©2007. Used by permission of Delacorte Press.

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This page was last updated on September 1, 2007.