Friday, April 26, 2013

War Brothers: The Graphic Novel by Sharon McKay

Life is tough all over for a teenager but I think most would agree that nowhere is tougher than a place like Uganda. Here adolescent boys have all the regular concerns like getting good grades and listening to their parents, but they also live in fear of the Lord's Resistance Army who kidnap young boys and force them to become soldiers and killers.  War Brothers is a graphic novel that tells the story of 3 such boys.  It is a work of fiction based on interviews with Ugandan teens who have survived kidnapping by the LRA which is led by the infamous Joseph Kony.  The story it tells is all too real.  This graphic novel was adapted from the novel of the same name.

The book starts with an introduction by the narrator, and kidnapped boy, Jacob.  From there it goes into a scene of the LRA attacking a convoy on the road, the young boys shoot at the truck, it crashes, they open up the back only to find that it is full of children and their mothers.  The leader tells them to take the boys and shoot the mother, the next page shows Jacob holding a panga (long machete type sword) the expression on his face shows that he does not want to kill the mother, but in the next scene he is holding the panga up ready to strike.

This story line is left as a cliff hanger and the very next page is back to the beginning of the story at Jacob's home where we meet his father and some family friends. Jacob is getting ready to go back to his boarding school, he is very good at math, goes to church every Sunday and has a good life. The only thing that threatens that is the LRA. The problem of the LRA is introduced by the adults having a political discussion and we learn that Jacob's father has hired extra guards for Jacob's school to protect the boys from the LRA.  Not long after Jacob gets to school and spends some time with his friends Paul and Tony, the LRA ambushes the school and kidnaps all of the boys.

From here the story becomes one of mental and physical torture, the boys are nearly starved, beaten for no reason bombarded with hostility and religious rhetoric with a twisted message that celebrates killing. The worst parts are when they are forced into situations that pose the question, how far would you go to ensure your own survival?  I won't go into detail here and ruin the story.  The leader of the group, known as lizard is the worst of them, he is brutal and has learned to preach to them in a way that makes them question their beliefs.

What they go through while in the LRA shows how groups like this can turn innocent children into killers, the boys see that when they look at Lizard and in the way that their own experiences begin to mess with their heads.  But in the end they are rescued, not a spoiler, this is expected, and they learn that even though they are safe nothing will be quite the same again.

I really enjoyed this book, it tells a very important story that people need to know about and also deals with very heavy material.  It lends itself to discussions about how beliefs can be shaped, what people do in difficult situations and how a person changes after tragedy, and definitely discussions about the ongoing conflict in Uganda.  The graphic novel format was really fantastic and worked well with this story because the artist was able to convey a lot of the emotions through images which will translate easily to young readers and makes the situations really come to life.  I also love that there is a full length novel to go with it.  You can do a whole class lesson assigning the full length novel to the students who are ready for it and the more reluctant readers can go with the graphic novel. I think the depth of the content lends itself to a high school classroom, junior high kids may not be mature enough to hold a strong discussion on it.

This book reminded me of one that I read a few years ago called 'A Long Way Gone' which is an actual autobiography written by Ishmael Beah, a former boy soldier in Sierra Leone.  Its a shocking and detailed account of the same kind of horrors that these boys went through, this one goes into more graphic detail than War Brothers.  Knowing the true story of what happened to Beah I can say that War Brothers is a completely accurate account.  While Beah is safely living in New York now there are still many boys in Uganda being kidnapped and turned into soldiers against their will.  This organization, War Child, offers excellent information on this issue as well as on other nations in conflict effecting the lives of children. This is a great organization and an excellent resource for discussion info.


Zak Q said...

Wow. Sounds endlessly fascinating. Thanks for including links for related reading along with the review. "A Long Way Gone" added to my reading list...

The idea of the graphic/textual two-novel approach is interesting as well. Did you have a chance to compare the two side-by-side? I'd definitely be interested in trying a dual-text lesson.

Vincent Restivo said...

As someone who also read the story A Long Way gone and thoroughly enjoyed it, I have to say I am now very intrigued by this story. You analysis of it makes it seem very interesting and the context you gave the reader of your review made it much more accessible for someone who might have otherwise overlooked it.