Imagine you are 13 years old. You are female. You are illiterate. You live in post-Taliban Afghanistan. You are little better than a slave in your own household, being treated cruelly by your father’s second wife, and your own mother is dead. Oh, and by the way, you have a cleft palate, and you are nicknamed “Donkey-face” by the area bullies, and sometimes even by your own half-brothers.

“Words in the Dust” by Trent Reedy, a former American soldier in Afghanistan, introduces us to Zulaihka, a 13-year-old Afghan girl and her family. Some of the events in this book are based on actual things that happened to Reedy during his deployment to Afghanistan. His author’s note at the end recounts the details true to his experience.

Zulaihka does as much as she can to keep her disfigurement hidden by her chador, a head covering which she can pull across and cover her mouth, but she is still mistreated and scorned by others.

One day while she is out on an errand for her stepmother, she is seen by American soldiers who are in her town. They later offer her surgery for her disfigurement. She is thrilled at the prospect of being normal, but her hopes are dashed when the American helicopter isn’t able to take her to Kandahar for the surgery.

Another day, again while running errands, but this time ending up being chased by the police (you’ll have to read it to find out why the police are after her), Zulaihka meets Meena, the village seamstress who had to give up being a university professor under the reign of the Taliban.

Meena knew Zulaihka’s mother, and knew her mother loved ancient Afghan poetry. With patience and care she awakens Zulaihka’s desire to learn and begins to teach Zulaihka to read and love the poetry as her mother had.

In order to learn to read, Zulaihka practices writing in the dirt — thus, the title of the book, “Words in the Dust.”

Dreams are coming true for Zulaihka’s family. Her father and older brother begin to work for the Americans as they work to rebuild the country. Their economic position is improving.

Her 15-year-old sister is to be married, the first step in fulfilling her dream of being a beloved wife and mother. She is marrying a much older man as his third wife. Still, Zeynab, her sister, believes in “happily ever after.”

Zulaihka eventually does get her surgery, and returns to her home, only to find the town bullies still refer to her as “Donkey-face.” Tragedy engulfs the family, and Zulaihka and her family struggle to carry on.

Meena offers Zulaihka a ray of hope, offering her an opportunity to travel to Herat to live with a respected Afghan woman, receive a full education and eventually go to university. But can Zulaihka receive permission from her traditional Afghan father?

You will have to read this children’s/young adult crossover book to find out how the story ends. Reedy includes a glossary, pronunciation guide and suggestions for further reading. With all that is going on in this area of the world, this book gives a good glimpse into the daily lives of Afghans as well as the struggle it can be for young women there to learn and to make a difference.

After reading the book, I wholeheartedly agree with a comment by Katherine Paterson, noted children’s author, who wrote the introduction to the book. “He (Reedy) has given me an Afghan friend for whom I care so deeply I cannot read a news report without wondering how what has occurred to affecting her life.”

“Words in the Dust” is available in both print and ebook versions at Joplin Public Library.

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