The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The lives behind collateral damage
Fifteen-year-old Younis is injured and orphaned when a U.S. military raid gone awry hits his village in an unnamed Muslim country that resembles Afghanistan. With the aid of an international relief organization, he is sent to the U.S., where he is assigned to a well-meaning but rather clueless foster family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He changes his name to Jonas on the plane: “He suspects this will cause trouble; he does it anyway.”
“The Book of Jonas” (Blue Rider Press, 2012), Stephen Dau’s debut novel, is a powerful story examining the human costs of war. Younis—now Jonas—attends high school in Pittsburgh. He is a brilliant outcast, finding refuge in the school library, “an oasis of wooden bookshelves and learning.” The target of merciless bullying, Jonas at last snaps and hands one of his tormenters a savage beating. Jonas is sent to a counselor named Paul, who helps him work explore the trauma that destroyed his family and home.
Jonas is awarded a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he makes friends and falls in love with a beautiful pre-med student from India. “Where do you go in your mind,” Paul asks Jonas repeatedly. In dreamlike fragments that punctuate the present-day narrative, the story of what happened in the days following the attack unfolds. Jonas’s story is interspersed with that of Christopher Henderson, an idealistic American soldier who found him in a remote mountain cave and nursed him back to health. Christopher’s story is told in excerpts from his diary; one of the entries tells the story of a baby gazelle that was adopted by a lioness—a parable that encapsulates the heart of this novel.
Jonas meets Christopher’s mother Rose, who has dedicated her life to finding her son, now missing in action. As she presses him for answers about the disappearance of her son, Jonas is forced to confront his emotional trauma and the knowledge of what really happened to Christopher. Things begin to disintegrate as he begins to drink, often to the point of blackout. The ending is both heartbreaking and emotionally honest.
The book’s structure recalls a church service or mass, with short chapters within sections titled “Processional, Invocation, Remembrance, Communion, Confession, Atonement, Benediction, Recessional.” And in fact “The Book of Jonas” is a kind of prayer for the survivors of “collateral damage,” soldiers and civilians alike. Recommended for older teens as well as adults, this brilliant and timely novel is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the consequences of war.
Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at http://www.saralatta.com.
This review originally appeared in the March 17, 2013 issue of The News-Gazette (Champaign-Urbana, Illinois).
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