Bamboo People Summary

Mitali Perkins

Bamboo People

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Bamboo People Summary

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Bamboo People (2010), a young adult novel by Mitali Perkins, concerns two boys fighting on opposite sides of an armed conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni tribe of natives. Through its narrative, it creates sympathy for young soldiers who are conscripted into a fight based on tragic circumstance as opposed to tribal or national loyalty and the camaraderie that transcends the arbitrary conflict between them.
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The first of the two boys introduced in the story is Chiko, a fifteen-year-old resident of Yangon, Burma. His father is a doctor who a few months earlier was arrested for following his Hippocratic Oath and treating a member of the resistance army fighting against the Burmese government. Eager to embrace a fate other than fighting for the military that abducted his father, Joon, Chiko learns of an opportunity to become a teacher. While reading a pamphlet on the opportunity, his mother warns him to come inside as reading a pamphlet could cause Chiko to run afoul of the military, even though the opportunity is being given by the government itself.

Although Chiko’s father is gone, Chiko retains a strong connection to the family’s patriarch. When he hides the pamphlet in his father’s safe, he comes across other “contraband” items possessed by his father. These include a Christian Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary. It is clear that Chiko is deeply inspired by his father’s scholarly ambitions and wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps.

When Chiko arrives at the interview for the teaching position, however, he learns that the pamphlet was a trick to attract young boys to a military recruitment base where Chiko and other youths are conscripted into the army against their will. Only the boys are taken, while the girls are sent somewhere else to a fate unknown to Chiko. Chiko is chilled to the bone when the military leader barks a three-word order to his subordinate regarding the boys: “Make them obey,” he says.

The training base for the recruits is, for all intents and purposes, a prison camp. Chiko and the others are not only “trained,” but beaten and tortured. In the mornings, a soldier rudely yanks the blankets off Chiko and the other “recruits.” They are fed a bit of rice and weak tea, but little else. When uniforms are given, there aren’t enough boots for all the boys, and Chiko is forced to train and march through the harsh jungle terrain in thin, flimsy sandals. To keep his spirits up, Chiko has hidden photos of his father and a daughter of a family friend, whom he has a crush on.

Looking for any reason to escape the hellish camp for a bit, Chiko volunteers for a dangerous mission in the nearby jungle. While on patrol with four other boy soldiers, the group encounters a landmine. The four boys accompanying Chiko are killed while Chiko is critically injured.

At this point, the perspective shifts to that of another boy near Chiko’s age named Tu Rei. Unlike Chiko, Tu belongs to the Karenni tribe of natives, a group the government has labeled dissidents. Effectively, Tu is on the opposite side of the armed conflict as Chiko. On his own mission in the jungle, Tu encounters the maimed bodies of the five Burmese soldiers, including Chiko who is barely clinging to life. Against the protests of many of his peers, Tu’s humanity prompts him to bring the ailing Chiko back to his camp.

Realizing that the medical capabilities at his camp will not be enough to save Chiko’s life, Tu bravely takes on a dangerous personal mission to craft a makeshift stretcher for Chiko and bring him to a healer in the jungle. Again, his peers fiercely criticize Tu for helping an enemy soldier, and Tu himself feels torn about putting his own life at serious risk for the sake of someone who is assigned to kill Tu’s people. Nevertheless, Tu continues on with his mission. The choice is made even more difficult by the fact that the Burmese army had burned his village down some time ago and killed many of his fellow villagers.

After taking Chiko to a physician at another Karenni camp, Chiko eventually recovers and is eternally grateful to Tu for saving his life. When they separate for the last time, Chiko says goodbye to Tu in Tu’s native Karenni language.

In a piece for Kirkus Reviews, the reviewer sums up Bamboo People, thusly: “While Perkins doesn’t sugarcoat her subject—coming of age in a brutal, fascistic society—this is a gentle story with a lot of heart, suitable for younger readers than the subject matter might suggest. It answers the question, “What is it like to be a child soldier?” clearly, but with hope.”