The Shepherd’s Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter
Parvana’s Journey was not the most auspicious start to my highly anticipated young adult and children’s literature class—its quest for social justice and awareness about the situation in Afghanistan left several things by the wayside, such as plot and character development. When I saw that The Shepherd’s Granddaughter had also been published by Groundwork Books, the publishers of Parvana’s Journey, I approached the book with some trepidation—but I needn’t have feared.
The Shepherd’s Granddaughter follows Amani, a young Palestinian girl who, although bright, only wants to do one thing in life—be a shepherd, like her grandfather, his father, and so on down the line. Since time immemorial, Amani’s family has lived in the valley, tending sheep and the olive groves. But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict comes to her front door when an Israeli highway and and a settlement come into the valley, leaving the young Amani with a very serious choice—flee to safety or stay in the valley and continue centuries of tradition?
The Shepherd’s Granddaughter immediately improves upon Parvana’s Journey by having a story—sure, it’s a fairly standard coming of age story, but it’s a coming of age story as much as it’s a story about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a way that children can understand. I remember reading enormous amounts of World War II fiction in elementary and middle school, and Carter does well when she subtly ties that familiar body of work with this book—Jonathan, a young Jewish American settler that Amani befriends, mentions that his grandparents, having survived World War II, were in favor of a Jewish homeland. Carter strikes the right balance between characters, story, and the issue at hand. The young reader (I tend to read things considering my hypothetical niece) learns about the conflict in human terms, from Amani trying to preserve her home to the rabbi who wants to work with the Palestinians to Jonathan. Carter does feel like she’s leaning more towards at some points, which is understandable—the book is written from Amani’s perspective, and Carter did her research with Palestinian hosts. For a younger reader—heck, even for me—it was a clear picture into a very complex situation. (For class, I had the incredibly daunting task of boiling down the Palestinian-Israeli conflict down to a paragraph. Yeesh.)
Amani is a nice, relatable heroine; she had me as soon as she was disappointed that summer didn’t just keep going on and on. Her family is nicely diverse; her brother, Omar, brings in brief sightings of the more militant Palestinian reaction, although his family always warns him against rash actions—which becomes increasingly difficult as they lose more and more ground. Her relationship with Seedo, her grandfather, is very sweet and remarkably practical; Seedo, an extremely traditional man who was disappointed to see his son marry a Christian, has little to no qualms about Amani taking up the mantle of shepherd. Amani doesn’t blink an eye at the facts of life; in fact, she helps with several births and deaths, both in the herd and in the family. While the characterization is often light, it’s such a big cast that you hardly notice. It’s the size of the cast that makes Amani’s story feel real—which, in a way, it is.
Like many children’s writers, Carter’s prose is merely functional—its few attempts to get philosophical were, well, unsuccessful. (I will admit to laughing.) I particularly enjoyed how Carter represented Arabic and English; obviously, the book is written in English, but when Amani is speaking English, she makes understandable mistakes and corrects herself. The pace is fairly brisk—each chapter is under ten pages, short enough to engage the child reader. While there is a story, the plot meanders at the beginning; Carter gets away with this because she’s establishing Amani’s life and occupation. Kids are going to need a little more time with that, especially if they don’t know much about the region. I’ve always been of the mind that there’s a difference between written for children and appropriate for all ages, and The Shepherd’s Granddaughter is definitely a book written for children. (I suppose that’s why it’s a book for this class!) But this book does what it sets out to do without beating the reader over the head with its cause, and that’s certainly laudable.
Bottom line: The Shepherd’s Granddaughter is a short, efficient children’s novel that strikes the right balance between story and social justice—Amani’s life as a young shepherd is just as important as the part of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that’s knocking down her front door. It’s still definitely a book written for children, instead of being written for all ages, but it does what it means to do without beating the reader over the head. An interesting choice for a young reader.
I bought this used book from Amazon.