Croatian Life Letters by Jodie Toohey: YA Book Review by Shawn StJean

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When I was a boy–30 and more years ago–many bookstores and libraries did not host a collection designated specifically for teens.  Aside from books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Louis Stevenson (both of whom require a high level of literacy to enjoy, are plot-driven, and definitely meant for boys) the vast majority of what I read was composed for adults.

Clearly, my past does not make me an expert on YA Fiction.  But I feel fortunate to have been randomly assigned to evaluate this short, 130-page work by the IndiePENdents organization, as part of its application of books for its approval seal.

I expect, just as most readers of Seventeen Magazine appear to be ages 12-14, a novel that follows the epistolary exchange of two girls (Ami and Nada,) ages 15 and 14, would probably be of more interest to the pre-teen set than those actually attending high school.   Ami has never been kissed by a boy before, and her innocent “get a boyfriend” scheme may have better amused this 45-year-old man than it would most of the U.S. sophomores out there.

This book has several features to offer teens that raise it above the norm.  First, it is set in 1991, the year Croatia declared itself independent of the Republic of Yugoslavia.  Not only, then, does it offer some instructive European history from the half-decade before most of its target audience was born, but it also unfolds in a world where true pen-pals (paper, ink, and postage stamps) were still viable: no internet or cellular telephones.  When people in your life left, they were, at least for a time and sometimes forever, gone.

The heart of the narrative lies in its juxtaposition of the trials of the girls from two different cultures.  Ami’s parents are recently divorced and she must adjust to the custody schedule, her favorite baby cousin has died, and she’s entertaining thoughts of suicide.  Meanwhile, Orthodox Catholic Nada resides in Rijeka, insulated a bit from the war-torn district of Dubrovnik, but not immune to racial and religious hate crimes.  She lies awake at night thinking of the mailed and telephoned death-threats her parents hide from her, her father has fled to Italy to avoid induction, and her basement is occupied by a pregnant couple desperate to keep their new family together.  As Ami writes to her friend, “I’m grateful my hell is only in my head. . . .You have no control over your hell” (71).

Poignant stuff, when compared to the series-vampire and werewolf fare that monopolizes the shelves–some of it admittedly well-written–but not particularly designed to edify kids preparing to enter a harsh, actual world in the 21st Century.  I was particularly pleased at Toohey’s corrective to the American view that Serbs were the sole aggressors in the Croatian war (and this done in a palatable, non-didactic manner.)  Be the truth of this interpretation as it may, one rejoices to see the spirit of inquiry raised for young people–if they wish to know more, a little outside research can only add to the enjoyment here.

Recommended ****

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