Book review

Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley (1999)

Revenge is a terrible thing to live with. Kaninda Bulumba is the victim of a tribal atrocity. His parents and little sister have been gunned down by government troops in their own home. They are dead and Kaninda only survives by lying and 'thinking dead' in the blood wet mud for hours along with them until the government Yusulu soldiers leave. Traumatized and haunted by the face of his dead sister he joins up with the rebel soldiers of his own tribe, Kibu. He is in need of revenge. Sergeant Matu teaches Kaninda all he needs to know about survival and warfare and killing. He is Kaninda's new father-figure. But Kaninda is scooped up by the Red Cross as a child victim of the war and hurtled thousands of miles across the face of the earth to East London where he is adopted by a God's Force family.

Now how on earth can you suddenly put on hold that huge range of emotions that has occupied Kaninda's heart for so long? No one could just put down a life like that and leave it and walk off. Kaninda has to come to terms with the deaths of his family somehow.

At first, Kaninda's only thought is how to get himself back to Lasai to rejoin the tribal conflict, and a stowaway plan forms in his mind. So competent and single-minded is this boy that we have no doubt that he could carry it through. Then, unbelievably, a Yusulu refugee arrives at Kaninda's comprehensive school and Kaninda knows that he must kill this boy first before he leaves London.

But all that is just what is going on inside Kaninda's head. On the outside he is silent and withdrawn, while his new life takes shape round him and starts to draw him in to a new beginning. Life on an East London council estate is almost as violent as the life Kaninda has left behind and he can cope perfectly well with the petty gang warfare. He knows it is nothing like the real thing.

When he finally gets the help he needs, though, it comes from the most unlikely person. His sworn enemy, the Yusulu boy refugee, helps him to see that revenge will not bring back his dead parents and sister and that in a tribal conflict, all sides are losers.

This is a beautifully written story. The violence is not so graphic as to be disturbing, it is referred to quietly and painfully in flashbacks. The subplots interlock perfectly and the clues are so lightly tagged you may not notice them until you are actually supposed to. But Kaninda himself is the most brilliant piece of work. The balance inside him of hate and violence and grief and yearning is genuinely moving.

Read this book. It will give you a lot to think about.

What can I read next?

Kaninda is a refugee, but he is also bewildered by the process of war raging all around him. I think there is that same feeling of bewilderment in this one by Robert Westall:

And Buck Smith, in this book by Suzanne Fisher Staples, is totally bewildered by the storm of racial prejudice which sweeps around him:

You could look at this book by Gaye Hicyilmaz, which deals with racism and refugee status:

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