Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lipstick in Afghanistan by Roberta Gately

Growing up poor in Boston, Elsa is determined to help those worse off than her family.  Several events helped her carve out her lifework.  One was helping her mother care for her disabled niece, who died young.  Another was seeing the pictures of families, especially the children, dying of famine in Biafra.  Elsa becomes determined to become a nurse, and with hard work, manages to do so.  Shortly after her graduation, two things occur.  Her mother dies and 9-11 occurs.  Elsa is determined to go overseas to help however she can.

She contacts a relief organization and they soon come up with an assignment for her.  She will go to a small town in Afghanistan called Bamiyan and work in a clinic, helping the villagers.  Elsa is excited and scared, but agrees to go.  She is astonished at much she finds there.  The poverty is overwhelming.  For the next year, she will bathe only sparingly, as her bathroom is a bucket and a latrine.  There is no electricity and the food is sparse.  But Elsa finds her calling helping the sick villagers.  There are also people who have been injured by Taliban forces, and Elsa finds that many hate the Taliban for the things they do and inflict on their own people.  The way women are treated is another cultural shock.

Elsa makes a close female friend, Parween.  Parween was lucky enough to find a husband who valued her mind and taught her to read and write and do math.  They have a daughter and are a happy family.  When the Taliban moves into town, everything changes.  They blow up centuries-old heritage icons such as the huge Buddhas that have stood guard over the village.  They impose strict Muslim law and the women must cover up and cannot walk around town.  Finally, as the villagers start to revolt, they round up many of the men and massacre them; Parween's husband among them.

Roberta Gately has written a compelling debut novel.  It explores the fate of the Afghan people, and the nature of female friendships that can endure regardless of war, poverty and other troubles.  The reader is swept into Elsa's world, and with her, starts to understand the complexities of the region and the difficulties of helping in many cases.  This book is recommended for readers interested in female stories about overcoming challenges.

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