I found the story behind this book almost as intriguing as the book itself. In an author’s note at the end of the book, Mr. Reedy says he wrote the novel by accident. He planned to write children’s books set in small town Iowa, but he was sent to Afghanistan in 2004 as a part of an Army National Guard unit. At first, he hated his job providing security for reconstruction teams that were rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure after decades of war and repression. He felt as if he were being cheated of his chance to repay the Al Qaeda terrorists for their actions on 9/11. Then, he began to meet and get to know average Afghan people, including a girl named Zulaikha who was afflicted with a cleft lip. American army surgeons were able to perform corrective surgery on Zulaikha’s lip and palate. And Mr. Reedy had a story that that he was anxious to tell.
“I have never been a girl and I am not an Afghan. Many would say that stories about Afghan girls should best be told by Afghan girls. I agree completely. I would love nothing more than to read the story of the girl who we helped in her own words. However, the terrible reality is that by some estimates, 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. . . Though progress is being made in Afghan education, too many Afghan girls are unable to get their stories out. In spite of this, or maybe even because of it, I believe it is very important for more Afghan stories to be told, as a greater understanding may foster peace.”
So, Words in the Dust is the fictional story of Zulaikha, a Muslim girl living in northern Afghanistan, based on the story of the real Zulaikha and on the stories of other people Mr. Reedy met during his time in Afghanistan. I thought the story was fascinating, true to life as far as I am able to judge, and somewhat horrifying. Some really, really bad things happen in Zulaikha’s life in in her family. So this book is not for young readers or tender minds. Mr. Reedy describes the bad stuff in a respectful, almost understated, way, but it’s still bad stuff.
So I would classify this book as Young Adult fiction, emphasis on the adult. Zulaikha is an engaging heroine, and again quite representative of what I would think Afghan girlhood is really like. The culture is very Muslim, very male-dominated, and the book ends with Zulaikha’s hopes for the future along with the word, Inshallah, “God willing”. Words in the Dust would be a good introduction to life in a traditional Muslim culture in a country that has been torn by war and nearly destroyed by Taliban terrorism and persecution of females.
I appreciated the story and the look into another way of life and the possibilities and problems that are present in Afghanistan even now.