By: Francesco D'Adamo. Publisher: Atheneum, 120 pages, $15.95. Review: Based on a true story, this novel for young adults sensitively and evocatively reveals the brutal life of child slaves in modern-day Pakistan.
Of related interest: Marc Aronson, husband of the reviewer, edited a nonfiction book on this subject for young readers: "Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery" by Susan Kuklin (Holt, 1998).
Reviewed by Marina Budhos
Special to the Star Tribune
Francesco D'Adamo's "Iqbal" is a sensitively written young-adult novel that gently brings readers into the brutal reality of child slavery in modern-day Pakistan. The novel is based on the life of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani child crusader and activist, sold, like many poor children, into virtual slavery -- working the handlooms in a carpet factory to pay off their parents' debts.
Iqbal was an exceptionally bright and fearless boy -- eventually he escaped to become a leading light in the crusade to end this cruel practice. He was awarded the Reebok Human Rights Award, traveled internationally, and spoke out passionately against the system that kept children shackled to lives of indefinite labor. Sadly, he was murdered in 1995 at age 12 under murky circumstances in his village.
D'Adamo's spare, evocative novel is told through the eyes of a young girl, Fatima, who labors next to Iqbal, weaving rugs. It's an interesting choice and makes for a curiously muted but deft book. Through Fatima, we come to see what an extraordinary and vital presence Iqbal was. The minute he arrives in the dim, cramped factory, the story throbs with tension. No one knows what Iqbal will do, and the suspense as his defiance grows -- including slashing a fine rug -- makes for a compelling story.
The book is strongest when depicting the claustrophobic world of these children, as they survive and are subtly transformed by Iqbal and his quest for freedom. D'Adamo gives us a bleak and moving sense of their lives: their blistered and bleeding fingers, the high window in the factory that delivers only a sliver of light, and the horrific "Tomb," an underground cistern where the children are sent for punishment.
One of the most moving moments is when the children have finally escaped to a house run by activists, and Fatima wakes up the first morning disoriented and in a panic: "My first thought was: I'd better get to the loom. It's late and the master will punish me."
Because the story is told through Fatima, parts of Iqbal's life are rendered off-stage and are less satisfying. His transformation from a boy who burns with injustice to an articulate leader who interacts with the wider world is slightly lost. And the public Iqbal, who by all accounts became an extraordinary speaker, helping to lead the international campaign against the sale of rugs made by children, never fully comes to life.
For the younger reader, however, "Iqbal" is an excellent, evocative introduction to the cruelties of child bondage. Hopefully it will inspire them to read more on the subject. To its credit, the book points the way with Web sites and a list of further reading on child-labor issues.
Marina Budhos is the author of "Remix: Conversations With Immigrant Teenagers." She lives in New Jersey.