Review: Adventure · Review: Historical Fiction

Book Review: AK by Peter Dickinson

There is a bunch of other stuff that I watched and read before this that I fully intended to review, but then I read this. Now I can’t really seriously discuss anything else.

Summary

AK is a story about a boy named Paul. Paul is just your average boy, trained for guerilla warfare in the politically unstable African nation of Nagala. His father is his commander, Michael, his mother is the war, and his best friend is his AK gun. We open our story to a new era of peace that Michael believes in. Paul must relinquish his AK and go to school. But not everyone is happy with the new administration, and Paul may have to take up arms again sooner than anyone had expected.

The Setting, Historical Context and Politics

Nagala, though a fictional nation, is built as the non-controversial equivalent of what is and has been happening in many African nations. Dickinson astutely opens his introduction to Nagala by talking about the people and then about the borders drawn by “the men in Paris,” which is of course the basis for much of the strife on the African continent, and indeed in many former colonies, such as the Indian subcontinent. One only needs to look at the European map and compare it with the African map to understand how the “simple” matter of agreeing on a single system of government and administration isn’t so simple. It took years of war and treaties for Europe’s borders to form the way that they are today. Places like the African countries, however, didn’t have this luxury. Their borders were drawn to convenience their colonizers in Europe, and with very few exceptions, remained as they were when the colonizers withdrew because status quo is powerful, and boundaries (which hadn’t existed before the Europeans in many places) remain international requirements today.

So now you have many countries that are a jumble of cultures, ethnicities, languages, religions and beliefs, and tell them to play nice? Ha!

I would argue that whether or not you like the actual story, it’s worth reading simply because Dickinson does an excellent job of portraying cultural disparity within a single country in a way that is tragically rare. One could make their case about the French in Canada or the Spanish in the United States, or the simple proximity of European nations to each other makes African nations’ cultural diversity anything but unique, but for the most part, Canada, the United States, and European nations carved their own borders amongst themselves.

Now, this is a book for children (or young adults, more probably), so it’s not heavy-handed in its dealing with intercultural dynamics. But rather than make it weak, that made it stronger. Because if you’re looking, you can see deeper levels to this conflict. There is more than simply what is made explicit on the page in front of you.

The same goes for the politics. Paul, of course, is merely nine- or ten-years-old. Yet he fights, he gives everything he has to the building of this perfect world that Michael dreams of, out of his love for Michael. So if you were expecting great political discussions, you’ll find yourself disappointed. As with the cultures, the political details are sparse. Oh, it’s not as though we’re left blindly believing in a man Paul loves! Michael describes his ideal nation to Paul, and details some of the steps that he and the new administration are taking, while they are still fresh. But these details we see through the eyes of a ten-year-old, and there probably wouldn’t be enough material to take up a ten-minute discussion in a political science class.

This story, though set in a controversial place and situation, does not seek to use that to preach a political ideal, or discuss cultural and political conflict. The idealism and the conflict are there, and the reader is free to take out of it what they will. In the end, the story is about the characters.

The Characters

I find that the characters are the most rewarding part of this book. Michael, the mind of the story, is the warrior-turned-politician who lacks that ambition for power that many in his position would feel. His great ambition is to set up Nagala’s first national park and be its overseer. He dreams of a land with an educated population, no need for weapons, and free trade where people are comfortable and happy to be. He is the first to declare that he is not Naga (one of the many ethnic/cultural identities in Nagala), but Nagala. But what makes him more than simply an inspiring background character is Paul’s devotion to him, and parroting of his ideals.

Paul, as the main character, is of course the heart of the story. His is the character arc. He starts out missing the war, a fish out of water in a world where war is suddenly no longer—but for love of Michael, he adjusts. When Michael says that Francis—a younger, book-smart warrior—needs to be well educated because he could be prime minister someday, Paul truly takes this to heart and spends the rest of the book protecting Francis as if he were the only surviving heir to a throne. Paul’s love, and its eventual growth from unquestioning love of Michael to a sort of loving respect in parallel to his developing love for his peer Jilli, is the true driving force of the story.

Jilli, whose primary role is that of Paul’s love interest, is far more dynamic than you might have expected if this had been, say, a mainstream Hollywood film. She grows right along with Paul, and in fact ends up suffering the most acutely felt losses among the main cast. She goes from being a sheltered village girl with no greater aspiration than to be a waitress in the capital, to an adventurer with aspirations of being a journalist, to finally a warrior, vulnerable and frail as all humans are.

There are many others, but the main character arcs belong to these three.

Conclusion

I can’t really say much more without spoiling the whole story. Which, on some level, I could do without repent because this isn’t really the sort of story that you can read to get to the end. It’s not about the end, because as you have to realize as you’re following the characters, there can be no end. Political imbalance, social dissent, militarization…these aren’t things that can be blinked away, fiction or not. It takes generations to build a stable government where there used to be corruption and imbalance. But this is a book that understands this, and in fact tells its readers so. When you reach the end, it leaves you satisfied, in that it has concluded the story arc that it set out to tell—but it also leaves you uneasy, knowing that anything could happen in the future.

Because this is a book that knows itself that the “end” isn’t really an end, it offers us two epilogues, in the form of two possible scenarios taking place twenty years in the future. And this depicts the way that this book is truly moving: it understands that it is only a tiny, little life in the midst of larger, wide-spread problems. It understands that those problems are too big to tackle in one book—even if this hadn’t been a children’s book, how could a novelist offer a satisfying end to such a scenario when real life seems to be so unsuccessful at providing one?

But that’s just it: the politics aren’t the story. Paul’s growth is the story, and it is a deeply moving one. This isn’t exactly a light-hearted read, but it is a quick read, and not a gloomy, depressing one. There is hope, and there is strife, and there are people. I highly recommend this book.

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