Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review: Abe in Arms by Pegi Deitz Shea

Review copy sent to me by the author

Back in May author Lyn Miller-Lachman invited me to the Inspired by True Crime panel at the NYPL, I had the opportunity to meet another author in the audience - Peggi Deitz Shea. She told me that she had a book of her own coming out soon - Abe in Arms, and I was excited to be able to say I'd actually heard of it, thanks to Ari's Waiting on Wednesday post earlier in May. Peggi and I exchanged e-mail information, and a few weeks later I got a package in the mail - my very own copy of Abe in Arms for review!

Abe in Arms (Reach and Teach)

I felt terrible when I saw Peggi briefly at ALA (we were getting books signed at the same booth) and realized that while I'd read and enjoyed Abe in Arms I hadn't gotten the review posted yet. I promised that I would have it up soon, so here we are!

Abe grew up in Liberia, a witness to the terrible strife and violence of the country's civil war in the 80s and 90s. Adopted as a teenager by a loving American family and now a senior in high school, Abe's life has definitely turned around as he has a promising future with track scholarships paving his way to a great college and a girlfriend who's crazy about him.

And then Abe starts getting flashes of life in Africa - terrible and terrifying glimpses of a past he'd done his best (both consciously and unconsciously) to forget. Through the help of his supportive father and a psychologist who won't let Abe give up, he slowly begins to uncover the horrors of his past while working through a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This is definitely and important and compelling story. I knew that child soldiers had been prominently used in Rwanda and Somalia's civil conflicts, but had no idea about Liberia. Liberia's existence as a country is fascinating - one of America's attempts at colonialism, during the 19th century various groups sponsored former slaves to send them "back" to Liberia, where tragically the standard story of colonialism and oppression was played out again against the native people. I definitely recommend you at least read the Wikipedia article on the country if you aren't already familiar with Liberia.

While I enjoyed the plot and the story, I found this to be a very "talky" novel - all of the characters were constantly talking about their feelings, and it seemed like there was more dialog than narration throughout the novel. As soon as an interpersonal conflict arose, the characters were immediately able and willing to articulate exactly what was wrong, which felt artificial.

Abe is a suitably complex character, and I felt his struggle with PTSD was very believable. He desperately wants to understand what's happening to him, but at the same time is terrified what his friends (especially his girlfriend and adopted brother/best friend) and teammates on the track team will think of him. When he has a flashback in the middle of a track meet, he's suitably mortified, not just scared because he doesn't understand what's happening, but truly embarrassed that now his problems are going to be the gossip of the school.

Finally, I have to say that while I definitely recommend this book, I wish the publisher had created a better quality product. When I pulled the book out of the envelope, I had to double check that I hadn't been sent an ARC because the book felt much more flimsy than a standard paperback. It didn't take away my enjoyment of the novel itself, but I thought it was weird to have a quality story in such a flimsy package as a final product.
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