Whether or not The Boat People is crowned the 2018 Canada Reads winner, it is a book that opened my eyes and through fiction has informed me about the injustice, racism and experiences of refugees. It is a story that represents the real life experience of refugees and sparks readers to consider their plight, learn more and reflect on their own assumptions.
As I read the book, I can remember the boats being in the news, remember media reports about terrorism concerns but other than that, I think I was too busy raising my own family to give much thought to the experience of the 500 refugees who arrived on a rusty boat from a country at war. It is very unfortunate that Canadians (including myself) may not have been very engaged in what was happening in Sri Lanka and this story puts faces (albeit fictional ones) to the trauma, terror and desperation.
The story is told from three perspectives, Mahindan (refugee), Priya (a law student whose parents had also fled Sri Lanka) and Grace ( a government appointed adjudicator faced with the decision of whether to deport the refugees after many hearings).
Mahindan lost his wife and his family during the Sri Lankan civil war and fled with his young son. He had been forced to make difficult decisions in a bid to survive and keep his family safe in his own country. The war escalated to a point where had had to abandon his home, sell anything of value and avoid bombs and guns on their trek to the boat. After a risky voyage in an unsafe, rusty boat filled with 500 others, he arrived only to be placed in jail, separated from his beloved son, Sellian.
Priya reluctantly worked on the refugee portfolio as she completed her quest to become a lawyer. As she completed her education, she learned not only about the law, but about her own family, her heritage, herself and her own goals. She could not speak her native language but gained more respect for her parents and uncle as she learned of their experience and the risks that they had taken for a better life.
One of the adjudicators was Grace, the daughter of a Japanese woman impacted by the shameful internment of WWII. As her mother slowly lost her memory due to dementia she taught Grace’s teenaged daughters about the internment and encouraged them to learn and stand up for themselves. As Grace deliberated, she was torn between determining any risk to Canadian security versus the refugee experiences and forced to make life and death decisions about their future.
The story is riveting, it shares the fierce will to survive, to protect loved ones and the risks people are willing to take to flee to a country of freedom and opportunity. It also gives readers a chance to consider the assumptions of the public and the government, the lack of experience of some adjudicators and the subjectivity of the process balancing public safety with compassion.
This book did truly open my eyes and make me ponder how lucky I am to have been born in Canada instead of experiencing the terror of living in a war torn country. If I have any constructive criticism it is with the ending, I was kept engaged in the story and without sharing more detail (no spoilers here) was looking forward to more details at the end.
I am excited to hear the debaters discuss this book. I have now finished all 5 books (watch for my review of American War soon) and have appreciated them all in their own ways. Each book is unique and I will be keen to hear the discussions and how the combination of fiction and non-fiction impacts the event.
Check out my other reviews in preparation for the debates:
- The Marrow Thieves (Cherie Dimaline)
- Precious Cargo (Craig Davidson)
- The Boat People (Sharon Bala)
- Forgiveness (Mark Sakamoto)
- American War (Omar El Akaad) – review pending
Editing to add that I missed thanking McLelland and Stewart publishers for providing an advance readers copy through a GoodReads giveaway for an honest review. Thank you!!! This was greatly appreciated and my apologies for the delay but the timing was great for Canada Reads!!!