Just in time for International Day of The Girl, I finished reading Aisah Saeed’s middle-grade novel Amal Unbound. The book is about a young Pakistani girl who has been forced into indentured servitude, meaning that her dreams of going to school and becoming a teacher are in jeopardy as she works as a servant for a wealthy family. While she is somewhat fortunate that the woman she serves is kind, the woman’s son is a tyrant. Standing up to him, in fact, serves as the catalyst for her being forced to work for his family.
It has been a tough month for women and girls, so perhaps it is a good time for a novel to serve up some positive role models. Even as my cynical side wants to argue with the novel’s somewhat positive ending, the Author’s Note talks about how Malala Yousafzai served as an inspiration for her heroine, and I begin to remember that change is hard but possible. While Saeed acknowledges the widespread problem of indentured servitude, she also points out both a real and a fictional example of young girls bravely advocating for themselves and others around them.
I bought a copy of this book as a gift for a 10 year old girl I know, and I picked it because it not only came recommended as part of the Bitter Southerner Reading List, but it also has a beautiful cover and was written by an Atlanta author. That last part, though, was not really relevant as the story takes place entirely in Pakistan. You will have to wait until next week for me to talk about the pleasures of seeing familiar places dropped into things you are reading. Saeed, however, is Pakistani American, so I really enjoyed reading and learning about a country she knows but which I know very little about. I have been making a concentrated effort to read widely to gain different perspectives, and this book does a good job of creating a sense of place and atmosphere–especially around food–that was a great introduction to Pakistan.
While a lot of the emotional content is easy for a middle grades student to understand, there are some surprisingly complex feelings in here. When events in the novel take a turn for what we would consider justice and things begin to look up for Amal, she does not rejoice in bad things happening to the woman she has been serving. There are people who are employed by the rich family that pressed Amal into servitude, and their fates are seen as more complicated and not as purely joyful as Amal’s. Toppling a ruling family is not easy, and the fallout will be complicated, which is not really something I’ve seen even in dystopian fiction aimed at a slightly older YA audience.
And yet, there is a lovely realization for Amal that a person can have more than one dream, and that many of their dreams can come true, which is a really wonderful thing for kids to know also.