Review: A Little Piece of Ground

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 3.59.03 pmtitle: A Little Piece of Ground
author: Elizabeth Laird with Sonia Nimr
date: Macmillan Children’s Books; 2003
main character: Karim Aboudi
Middle Grade fiction

I first heard about A Little Piece of Ground back in 2006 at a dinner in Jeddah. It’s only fitting that I found out about this book on that trip because it’s when I really began to put a face on Palestine, to understand that real people were affected by the occupation. I met Palestinians who were traveling with no passport (they don’t have a country) and consequently, limited economic opportunity.  In the US, we’ll talk about the Israel/Palestine conflict from an Israeli perspective, but not Palestinian, as if to find any faults in Israeli’s actions is to question it’s right to exist. We give Palestine no visibility.

A Little Piece of Ground remained on my radar and when I recently spotted it in my library I decided to finally read it. And, I’m glad I did.

Karim Aboudi is growing up in Ramallah with an older brother and two younger sisters. He plays soccer, video games, tussles with his brother and goes to school when the curfews are lifted. Now, however, he can’t go to school at all because the building has been destroyed by the Israeli occupiers. The day to day rhythm of Karim’s life is set by the curfews that are sporadic in occurrence and will last for an unannounced amount of time. Karim’s life is stress-filled.

Several key events happen on a particular trip to his family’s home village that mark his passage into adulthood. The cruel, oppressive occupation makes this transition sudden. Boys of a certain age and size are viewed and treated as men. (Doesn’t that sound familiar?) And these men see things that they ignored as children and they don’t like what they see. As men, Karim and his friends Hopper and Joni find ways to resist their occupiers, no matter how futile their efforts. How often do young people come of age in middle school books? Oppression ages us quickly.

There are several pieces of ground that are significant to the story. One is a rocky, trash-filled lot where Karim and his friends bond their friendship. They claim their space in an abandoned car, mark their land with a flag made from rocks and old paint and celebrate on it when they play soccer together. This little piece of ground gives Karim something he hasn’t found elsewhere and it communicates the attraction people in general have to the land.

The book is written in a third person limited voice. I think this empowers the main character every bit as much as first person. I also think this voice brings a little more balance to the story by not focusing completely and entirely on one person. It works particularly well here in creating a feeling of community for the Palestinians who are invisible outside this book. Laird gives them visibility by voicing rural and urban dwellers, Christian and Muslim, parents, uncles, siblings and grandparents who all have parts here. Israeli’s are invisible; it’s not their story. I think they’re made to feel as outsiders in the book by being connected to vehicles. They have no character development which creates invisibility, but there’s something about their coming and going in machines that places them as outsiders.

One thing I learn over and over in young adult literature : the young people will save us all. Us old heads, we become wise, complacent and accepting.  Regard this exchange between Karim and his uncle. Karim questions his uncle who reminds him that the occupiers are human just like everyone else.

“Human? You call those settlers human?”

“Yes. Human. Like us. And that’s what I find so depressing. Watching them, I see what we humans are capable of. I know that we could be like them too. They’ve shown me now bad human nature can be. If we had power over them, or over anyone else for that matter, we’d do the same things that they do. It’s what happens when the conquerors rule the conquered. The powerful hate their victims or they wouldn’t be able to bear the thought of what they’re doing to them. In their eyes, we’re nothing — inferior, barely human. They can’t abide the knowledge that I learned long ago — that we’re all the same.

Karim was silent for a moment, then half under his breath, he said, ‘We’re not bad. They are. Look how many Palestinian kids they’ve murdered. We throw stones at them They shoot bullets at us, to kill.”

“So, does it make it right for us to go and bomb them? Those schoolkids who died today — they were probably the same age as you or Jamal. Did they deserve to die? How do you think their families feel tonight? And what about the ones who were injured? Legs and arms blown off, scarred for life, blind maybe?”

Karim could hardly bear to listen to his uncle any longer.

“They hate us. They’re trying to destroy us. I hate them, all of them. I don’t care how old they are. It’s simple, sidi, like I said. It’s that simple.

Abu Feisal laughed, but his eyes were sad.

“You think that now, but you’ll remember what I said. It’s not really that simple at all.”

This book that tells stories about these pieces of land is about so much more than that. It’s a rare little gem that articulates the nature of oppression, privilege and domination. And, resistance. It’s a single experience woven into a larger story.

Elizabeth Laird is a white British woman who was born in New Zealand and grew up in London. Her writing for children and young adults which often feature the voice of the marginalized includes Red Sky in the Morning (1988) about a disabled child; Kiss the Dust (1991), about Kurdish asylum seekers in Iraq and The Garbage King (2003) about Ethiopian street children in Addis Ababa. Her most recent book, Song of the Dolphin Boy (2018) about a boy who wants to save dolphins from the polluted waters off the coast of Scotland.

Dr. Sonia Namr, a Palestian, is a university lecturer,  author and Arabic translator who lives in Ramallah.

Is this book in your middle school library?