One of the reasons Madison’s public library wants me dead is my reluctance to read Walter Dean Myers’s SUNRISE OVER FALLUJAH. I returned this to the library, overdue, twice without having read it, before finally getting myself to crack it open (at a point when the creditors’ letters bemoaning my idea that this time, I’m really going to read this! were piling up).
Why the reluctance? I love Myers — I have since some kind soul got me to read MONSTER — and I was excited to know SUNRISE OVER FALLUJAH was coming out. I think the source of my Hotel Rwanda-ing of it is mostly that I read about, and think about, and talk about Iraq all the time*, and the idea of doing it at bedtime, when I read kids’ books to relax, was a bit overwhelming.
Of course, I’ve also been working on IRAQIGIRL this past year, putting “children’s/YA books about the Iraq war” a little more firmly into the camp of “work” rather than “chilling out with a sauvignon blanc and a book and pretending there’s not some journal article that some more virtuous grad student somewhere is taking notes on (or writing) while I enjoy this shit.”
Anyway, I was really glad when I finally did force myself to start SUNRISE, because it is excellent. All of Myers’s usual strengths come into play: he manages to genuinely individuate characters by the precise brand of sardonic wit they employ. This feat is one thing that elevates the book over generic war stories, with their military banter so tired we feel we’re on our own third deployment of it; I’ve, sadly, read my fair share of that, too, and Myers is better than it.
Another notable characteristic of SUNRISE is the serious research effort that Myers clearly put into it. Having read a lot of soldiers’ memoirs (nearly all more brutal and negative about the war than what Myers portrays, by the way, although his has certainly been received as a bleak view), SUNRISE broadly accords with what I’ve read and also heard soldiers describe; Myers also makes good use of facts that have more recently come to light — like Blackwater’s role in Iraq — to imagine what the war looked like back in its earliest days.
I particularly appreciated that some of this research was clearly off the beaten path of mainstream U.S. reporting, as when Myers’s protagonist, Robin “Birdy” Perry, witnesses an argument between his superior and a local sheikh:
“Do you really think that we have the problems your papers are reporting?” Hamid asked. “Do you think that people who have lived together more years than your country has been in existence suddenly find it impossible? That the hatred has grown so quickly between Sunnis and Shiites that we must shoot each other and bomb each other?”
The mythology of timeless and unchanging ethnic hatred in Iraq is so taken for granted in the U.S. that I was surprised and happy to see it explicitly challenged in one of the book’s key scenes. And it’s historically accurate: SUNRISE is set in the war’s first year, before the ethnic divisions among Iraqis had become so entrenched by the experience of occupation and by the electoral and military systems designed by the U.S.
That decision to set the story in the war’s early days is what gives Myers’s book its most effective emotional punch: the characters can truly believe that they’re about the find the fabled WMD, and we get to vicariously experience their ultimate betrayal without Myers having to take his story there directly. Here’s another such scene:
“Tell him we didn’t come to kill him,” I said. “That we’re trying to build a democracy over here.”
“You bombed my village,” the old man, his head down, replied slowly in English. “First you shoot into my house, then you come to the door.”
“Where you learn to speak English?” Jonesy asked.
“I drove a cab in London for twelve years,” answered the old man. “When I had enough money to buy a house for my family, I came back to my country.”
“You’re going to be all right,” Jonesy said. “We don’t hurt our prisoners.”
And, of course, everything we know about Abu Ghraib and everything else makes this scene intensely painful.
Which also raises my biggest question about the book. People who are about to be freshmen in college this fall were in sixth grade when the Iraq war began; they were in elementary school during 9/11. Myers’s target audience of high school students, of course, was even younger. Do they even remember the lies about the WMD? Do they remember Abu Ghraib? They never experienced, as news-aware citizens, the days when the most optimistic hopes of Myers’s characters were taken for granted by most Americans. What do they make of this book? And when Jonesy assures his prisoner, do they believe him?
* Emily and I both have a long history of involvement in the antiwar movement; we both, for example, were at different times members of the national coordinating committee of the Campus Antiwar Network, back when were were in college.