The Day of the Pelican
Katherine Paterson (J Historical Fiction)
Terrible things should never happen in springtime, and it was almost spring.
Meli Lleshi and her family lived a comfortable life in Dukagjin. Her father came from a farm village so although her classmates didn’t look down on her like the Gypsies or hated her like the Serbs, she was still treated differently. She didn’t understand why the Serbs hated the Albanians so much…although most Albanians hated the Serbs equally. Baba, Meli’s father, had always taught his family to respect and not to hate, and so Meli did as she was told until the day her brother, Mehmet, disappeared. Now, with her country no longer safe, Meli will need to hold on tight to her family as they fight to survive and look for a way to escape their beloved Kosovo.
The Day of the Pelican is based on an actual Kosovar refugee family who was sponsored by Katherine Paterson’s own church in 1999. This is a harrowing, gritty, and brutal account of the war in Kosovo, which was the direct result of Slobodan Milošević’s decade-long oppression of the ethnic Albanian people. The book is recommended for ages 12 and above and its subject matter of ethnic cleansing and racial prejudice is worthy of in-depth discussions, making it an ideal book for a middle or high school social studies class. As far as it being an independent read, I—as an adult—found it to be a bit dry and often struggled to maintain interest in the story, so a younger reader with far less tenacity may give up on this book entirely. I think the primary reason for my detachment is that it’s written in the third person. Had Paterson chosen to use alternating, first-person points of view between Meli and Mehmet, I would have felt Meli’s fear for her brother, as well as better understand the reason behind Mehmet’s slow and painful separation from his father and family. As it is, the story lies just above the surface and never fully allows the reader to connect with this amazing family.
I appreciate any book that teaches history to young readers and especially love a book that shows the strength of the human spirit and the power of hope. The Day of the Pelican accomplishes both, while being deeply rooted in faith, courage, and family.
Throughout the book, Baba was always counting heads to make sure everyone in his family was accounted for. He kept repeating to Meli the importance of staying together: We must hold onto each other. Even in the chaos of fleeing their burning homeland, Meli kept reminding herself that they were all together and that was the important thing. Throughout his family’s struggles, Baba knew that villages may crumble, governments may fall, and possessions may be lost forever, but if you have family, you have everything you’ll ever need: Inshallah. God willing.
* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com