Styling himself after Scheherazade, Khosrou begins his tale with his earliest memory, in which his grandfather in Iran, Baba Haji, kills a bull in his honor and wipes the blood on his little cheeks. At least, he thinks that is how it went, but maybe someone told him that story, or maybe it’s not even true at all. Whatever the case, it makes a great composition for English class in his American school, where everyone calls him Daniel.
Author Nayeri relates the story of his life as a wealthy child in Iran before his family was forced to flee the Muslim “Committee” because of his mother’s conversion to Christianity. They gave up everything, and now his mother works odd jobs to keep them housed and fed, even though she was a physician in Iran. Daniel remembers his father as a superhero of a man, confident and ebullient, but he did not come to America with them, and now he is married to someone else. In one school assignment after another, Daniel works to save his memories in stories, although his classmates only half believe him.
Nayeri uses evocative language to spin this mostly-true tale of his beloved Persian heritage, all the while honoring his mother’s courage in leaving it behind. He revels in the food of his homeland and tells of his evenings making fresh dishes with his mother. He is pudgy and shy, sorry that the girl he admires does not return his affections. His young life has far more years folded into it than his classmates’ simple lives could ever hold. He remembers the suffering of leaving loved ones, living for years as a refugee in Italy, and then starting all over again in Oklahoma.
This autobiographical novel has won just about every prize imaginable for teen books, and it is one of the finest examples of literary achievement for young people that I have read. The writing is beautiful, the style creative. Although the subject matter is sometimes heartbreaking, Daniel has a great sense of humor, so the reader is often laughing through tears. It is a story of immigration in which both the origin and the destination are honored. It is a story of religious persecution that does not hate the other faith. It is the tale of a boy who treasures family and heritage as he reconciles himself to a new home.
I listened to the audiobook version of this story, which is read by the author. I recommend this format, at least as a backup, since Nayeri has a friendly voice, and I would not have pronounced the Farsi words properly otherwise. This book would make a great family read-aloud (listen aloud?), since there is so much to discuss that is part of our ongoing national conversation. The comments about Christianity are refreshingly bold and positive, not the usual careful, neutral words of American writers. After all, his mother was willing to die for Jesus, like most members of the great conversion happening in Iran today. The grown-up Daniel Nayeri’s love and admiration for his mother will warm your heart.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I listened to a library digital audio copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.