What choices do fifteen year-olds face in this world? What is at stake for them if they choose to speak out against what they know is wrong? The answer is, of course, completely different if you are a poor fifteen year-old Indian boy working for a cruel master on a camel farm or a fifteen year-old Canadian girl pulled out of school and brought to the desert with your scientist father.
When Munna learns that he has been hired to help prepare very young boys to ride camels in prestigious races for the Sheikh, he is very clear that what is being done to these boys is morally wrong and that he is an accomplice. Despite his survival being dependent on his ability to train the boys, Munna is unable to mirror the cruelty of his master. Instead, he takes on the responsibility of looking after them as older brother. With ingenuity and compassion he finds ways both train and protect them and is willing to sacrifice his hopes of going back to his family in India. When Avra, a teenage girl close to his age, arrives from Canada, he finds an ally in his quest to protect the boys. Although the Canadian teen provides a way for the author to bring in the role of the United Nations in alerting the rest of the world to the plight of the child jockeys, the author is careful to not underplay the stark contrast between her reality and Munna’s. As a reader, refreshingly, I experienced this contrast through Munna’s eyes rather than through any implanted sense of guilt on the part of the Canadian teen. Nanji paints an unapologetic picture of each of the children in the novel: the hopelessness and innocence of the very young boys sold into a life of starvation and abuse versus the intelligent confidence of the two female teens (Avra and the Sheikh’s daughter Malika) born into lives of material comfort and education. Both Munna and Avra are who they are because the circumstances in which they have been born and raised and although the stakes of their choices are different, they both work to address the wrong that they see before them.
What made Nanji’s novel a compelling read for me is the way each of the characters was so clearly drawn. The settings of the novel were also starkly simple and provided a tight frame in which to place the characters. Right from the beginning of the novel, which takes place in his family’s flat in India, I was pulled into Munna’s insecurity and despair; later, I felt with him his physical reaction at the cruel treatment of the camel jockeys. The endless desert haloed the camel farm highlighting the abandonment and imprisonment of the boys who are shown to be simply children: innocent, hopeful, playful. The novel never felt like a didactic account of a human rights issue; rather, as I read, I worried about Munna, aching for him and the little boys, hoping for them to find a way out of their impossible situation.
Whenever I read a young adult novel, I think about the teens that I teach every day in Canada – how would they respond to the story? Would they care about the characters? Depending on who my students are, I wonder, will they relate to the dilemmas the characters face or, if not, is the writer able to draw them into a reality that they are so distant from? Ghost Boys is a novel I would give my students to read because it is accessible without being simplistic and because it is a story that will, at least while they are reading it, inspire them to care.