Friday, March 2, 2012

The People of Sparks

I often recommend The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau as a case study in immigration. I’d like to mention it here, because it’s not an obvious choice, given that it doesn’t have many of the BISAC Codes we look for in diversity-friendly books.

I won’t speak to whether or not you will love the story….In words of the great LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. 

I will, however, say that the book understands the dynamic of immigration in a way that I rarely see in MG or YA literature, and I was exceedingly grateful to Ms. DuPrau for writing it. The story follows Lina and Doon shortly after they defeat Bill Murray and lead the people of Ember out into the daylight. The Emberites have been inside an elaborate bomb shelter until then, and represent—more or less—a roving population of refugees. The plot centers on their discovery of a settlement called Sparks, and the tensions that arise when the settlers reluctantly take the Emberites into their camp.

DuPrau sidesteps nearly every landmine as she shows the escalating hostility between the people of Sparks and the Emberites. Often, in modern memoirs, we get what I call, “tales of immigrant woe,” in which the author does his/her very best to cast immigrants as wet kittens, whimpering at America’s door.

I’ve lived in refugee camps. And my family sought asylum to the United States. I can assure you there are a vast number of humiliations involved in the experience. But those are not the only experiences involved in our lives.

DuPrau managed to avoid such cheap grabs at sympathy, and I was grateful that she did. The characters of Lina and Doon immediately set out to better the ramshackle housing they are given. They both educate themselves on the new environment, from planting gardens to applying medicine. And when the hostility spills into the streets, they are in a perfect position to show how much the two communities need one another.

There are great discussions to be found here about the possibility of assimilation (and the extent to which it is beneficial or harmful), about the value of diverse backgrounds. And all without the obligatory, “in our culture, we love to eat!” paragraph delivered by most tales of immigrant woe, wherein they try to convince audiences that if you get invited to their house, “you better come hungry!”
I loved that DuPrau was also fair to the opinions of the people of the Sparks. After all, much of the fear of immigration is rooted in the fear of a shortage of resources. It justifies itself as the desire to defend the inheritance of the next generation. These are human emotions, and there is no reason to deny their power.

The truth is that new populations do partake in the limited resources of a community. It is also true, however, that the community can create more and better resources with the help of the new population.

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