Even though we seem to forget again and again, the devastation of war is nothing new. Everyone and everything suffers. In War Horse, Michael Morpurgo centered his story around a horse and his boy, using Joey, a spirited red bay who is sold to the army, to highlight both the grimness of modernized warfare and its overlooked victims, the cavalry horses. In Morpurgo’s newest book, Shadow, he eloquently links the war in Afghanistan, the displaced peoples caught between the fighting, the dehumanizing imprisonment of families awaiting deportation in Yarl’s Wood, England, and even the volcanic eruption in Iceland to a story about a boy and his very special dog.
Because of Dog, fourteen year old Aman, locked away at Yarl’s and awaiting deportation to Afghanistan, decides to trust his best friend’s grandpa. It’s the first time he’s told anyone about his past, when the Taliban came into power, when they took Aman’s father away in the middle of the night, when Aman’s mother was beaten by the police. That’s when Shadow came, a dog just like the one in Matt’s grandpa’s picture. Not only does she follow Aman and his mother when they decided to make the treacherous journey to Manchester where Aman’s Uncle Mir lives, she watches over their safety, too. In doing so, Shadow is amazingly reunited with her trainer, Sergeant Brodie, when she sniffs out a roadside bomb. The British soldiers befriend Aman and his mother, and for a moment it looks like everything will be okay. But Shadow, or rather, Polly, can’t belong to Aman and to the army, and Kandahar is still a long way from England.
Obviously, Aman and his mother successfully make the journey, if barely. Once in England, they apply for asylum and Aman manages to build a new life, learn the language, make friends, join the football team, even meet Ryan Giggs (of Manchester United.) That’s all suddenly taken away when the police come to deport him and his mother. After surviving so many dangers just to be where they are now, it seems unfair Aman and his mother have to face the even greater hurdle of convincing the British government they deserve to stay.
More unfair is the callous way they are treated at the detention center, where children are separated from their parents and detainees are treated like criminals. Morpurgo recreates the hostile ambiance succinctly through small details: the guards’ sarcastic comments and their deep suspicion of everything, even the Monopoly set Matt’s grandpa brings to cheer Aman up. And though it would have been easy to use emotionally charged words to describe the detainees’ situation, Morpurgo wisely does not give in to sentiment. I keenly felt the despair inside Yarl’s Wood through Matt’s grandpa’s simple observation of the little girl in the pink dress who keeps running towards the door, waiting for it to open.
While there are many coincidences and eleventh hour miracles in Shadow, I didn’t find them far-fetched beyond belief. I was too busy rooting for Aman, Matt, Matt’s grandpa, and Shadow to come through, and I am amazed how Morpurgo manages to tackle such weighty issues as the current situation in Afghanistan, the treatment of families in illegal immigrant detention centers, and raising public awareness through protest and the press without losing sight of the rare and wonderful relationships in this story.