Sunday, September 1, 2013

A TIME OF MIRACLES, by Anne-Laure Bondoux

1.  BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bondoux, Anne-Laure.  2010.  A Time of Miracles.  Translated from the French by Y. Maudet.  New York, NY:  Delacorte Press, a division of Random House Books for Children.  

2.  PLOT SUMMARY

Koumaïl has grown up hearing the story of how Gloria rescued him from a derailed train and took him when an injured French woman begged her to save her baby.  He has spent his childhood in the Republic of Georgia.  But when the Soviet Union collapses, they must travel across the Caucasus and Europe over a five year period to reach a place of safety. Gloria and Koumaïl become refugees trying to get to France, where Koumaïl, who believes his real name is Blaise, will find his French mother.  Gloria, though, has secrets that are slowly revealed throughout the story as Koumaïl grows older.  It is only as a young man that he learns all of the pure and simple truth of who he is.

3.  CRITICAL ANALYSIS

Despite the heartbreaking nature of Bondoux’s book, it still has an uplifting quality.  One of the most important themes of this historical novel is hope when the world gives good reason for despair.  As the last page says, “Among all the things she gave me, I know there is a foolproof remedy against despair:  hope.  So as my tears run down my cheeks, I promise her that I will live my life the way she taught me to.  I will always walk straight ahead toward new horizons” (180).   No matter what Koumaïl experiences, he keeps that sweetness of character and hopefulness that makes him an antidote to the harsh realities of war.  The gypsy leader Babik tells Koumaïl, “Your soul is beautiful,   Koumaïl…It is brave and as refreshing as dew” (107).  His character is one that readers are willing to walk alongside even when the story is sad.

The central mystery of the story is wrapped in the question of who Koumaïl really is.  The story asks the question:  what is truth and what is a lie?  “Is there a difference between a lie and a made up story?” Koumaïl asks on page 179. Gloria always believed so, as she says, “When one does not know, Monsieur Blaise, one imagines.  It’s better than nothing” (97) and her ability to tell stories directly impacts the plot.  The author plays on the use of storytelling, as Koumaïl says at the end of chapter one, “I just have to tell my story.  All of it.  And in the right order,” which is something Gloria tells him, as on page 11, “Hold on, you’re going too fast.  I always tell things properly, in the right order, you know that.”  She also tells him later on, “There’s nothing wrong with making up stories to make life more bearable” (34). 

Gloria’s character has flaws, revealed over the course of the story, some of which are profound.  But because of this, there is balance to the story.  It feels authentic and true instead of a fantasy story of a hero’s journey.  Young readers will be drawn in by the mystery, and will keep reading through the emotional highs and lows of Koumaïl’s experiences, so eloquently described.  The depth of Gloria’s character as a mother may be lost to younger readers, though.

The plot spans the time from when Koumaïl is age 7 to 20. The voice of Koumaïl matures over time, especially once he reaches France and claims the name Blaise.  His voice, as he narrates, slowly becomes that of a young man, quoting poetry rather than cuts of beef.  As Koumaïl and Gloria travel, they leave pieces of themselves behind with those they briefly were able to love, but he picks up wisdom and knowledge at each stop, as well.  He then is able to apply them later on as necessary.  For example, when they arrive at Romania, about to be attacked by the gypsy kids, Koumaïl says, “When I straighten up, I think of Emil and Abdelmalik: ‘If you don’t fight, you’re dead!’ Quickly I get to my feet and swing from one foot to the other, fists raised to the level of my face.  Whoosh!” (104).  He manages to punch the leader of the gang right in the nose, which wins him approval and entrance into the gypsy camp.  Each leap of their journey builds his character.

The author employs foreshadowing well, weaving clues within her mystery, both with the repetition of Gloria’s favorite phrases, but also when Gloria tells him that a mother will always recognize her son.  On page 148, when he sees Gloria for the first time in eight years, she immediately knows who he is. 

Anne-Laure Bondoux provides a very authentic look at life in the Caucasus during the time of revolution, when refugees were everywhere.  It was a very complex area.   Gloria states, “’Too many countries,’...‘Too many people!  Borderlines change and names change constantly.  At the end of the day, only ruins and unhappy people are left.  It’s useless to try to understand the Caucasus, Monsieur Blaise,’” (57) but the author seems to understand it quite well.  She shows how communities of refugees often came from such different places in many ways.  One example is how in the “university for the poor,” the children learn "cuts of meat from Old Max, spices and plants and their medicinal uses from old Lin, the martyred saints and prayers from the meditating monk, sewing from Rebeka’s mother, Arabic words from Jalal and Nasir, and the rules of poker, bridge and blackjack from Kouzma the former sailor"  (25). 

Bondoux uses sensory descriptions to create a vivid setting, such as, “There is a smell of laundry mingled with that of vinegar.  Women are gathered in the center of the courtyard, around a huge iron vat set above blazing logs.  The skin on their bare arms is red up to the elbows.  They speak and laugh loudly.  As the laundry boils in the scum of our dirt, a cloud of steam rises, leaving a thick condensation on the windowpanes of the floors above” (4). 

Because of the believable setting, interesting plot and lovable protagonists, this book is gripping even through a fairly confusing maze of travel locations.  The map in the beginning is very helpful, though it should be read at the end, as there are plot points given along with the names of the refugee camps, that some might not want to know.  But the point for the last stop on the map is, “Learned the pure and simple truth,” which is a beautiful and clever tie in to what Koumaïl had always learned to parrot:  “MynameisblaisefortuneandIamacitizenofthefrenchrepublicitsthepureandsimpletruth” (124).  He does indeed learn the truth in the end, and it sets him--and Gloria--free.

If ever there was a book that could manage to entertain and yet also press the importance of social justice on behalf of war-torn countries and homeless children, this is it. The innocence of Koumaïl and the positive nature of Gloria contrast constantly with the grimness and violence around them, highlighting the cruelty of war and the horrific situations of refugees. 

For those of us who live in America, it provides a very sensory-detailed look at the hunger, squalor and impermanence that marks the life of refugees.  Lines such as, “I learned there are many dangerous places for children on our planet,” (132) and “The people we encounter have emaciated dogs and hostile faces.  They lock their doors when they see us,” (66) have the potential to create a drive for justice among complacent wealthy people and instill compassion.  In the words of Gloria, “What everyone needs, Koumaïl, is a good place to live,”  (116).  Dan Hade’s view of multicultural literature as a social movement certainly works well with this book, as the story shows the importance of striving for equality and justice for all people (Vardell, 2010).  War is described as a monster, as Bondoux writes, “war looks like a ferocious and famished beast hiding in the nooks of the mountains and dark forests shown on page 79 of my green atlas” (56). 

The book is an honest look at the tragedy associated with war for many families. 

4.  REVIEW EXCERPTS:

"The story is written in beautiful, quiet prose and offers a touch of hope, along with tragedy.  The characters and story are well formed, but young people unfamiliar with the circumstances of life behind the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union might be confused as much of the conflict and political situation isn't explained until near the end of the book.  However, those who stay with it will be rewarded with an exception story." -- School Library Journal, January 1, 2011.


"Continuously embellishing Blaise's life story, Gloria keeps hope alive for the boy, believing it is the 'one and only remedy against despair.'  Years after their sudden, wrenching separation, a reunion brings to light the final, heartrending version of Blaise's past.  Though Blaise narrates this splendidly translated novel, Gloria's voice will long resonate. Ages 12 and up." -- Publishers Weekly, November 8, 2010.


"Bondoux, author of multi-award-winning The Killer's Tears (2006), tells another unusual, wrenching story of a vulnerable child... in potent details.  Bondoux creates indelible scenes of resilient children who, like Koumaïl, find strength in painful memories:  To be less afraid of the darkness and the unknown, I call on my ghosts." --Booklist, December 15, 2010.


Winner of the Batchelder Award, 2011.

ALA Notable Books for Children- Winner 2010

5.  CONNECTIONS

  • Because students will probably be unfamiliar with the fall of the Soviet Union, it would be helpful to study that period of history concurrent with the reading of this novel, to compliment both the reading and the history unit.
  • Read another of Bondoux novels, such as The Killer's Tears Do an author study.
  • Study a modern refugee situation, such as people fleeing from Syria. 
  • Make a giant physical map of the area they travel, and have students make a representational image of each camp/place they stayed at, and place it on the map.
  • Create a Google map, placing point markers at each location of their journey.


6.  PERSONAL REACTIONS

I was not excited to read this book because it sounded depressing.  I don’t like reading books that make me cry, and the jacketflap calls the story “heartbreaking” right off the bat.  But because the story is about love, hope and the survival of hardships, it was not nearly as depressing as I feared.  I was quite touched at the end, and yes, I did cry, but I was content with the ending.  It felt right, even if it was not the ending Blaise had hoped for himself.

Works Referenced

Bondoux, Anne-Laure.  2006.  The Killer’s Tears.  New York, NY:  Delacorte, a divison of Random House Children’s Books.  Translated from the French by Y. Maudet.

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