Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples won a Newbery honor in 1990. I first read it for a children’s literature class when I was in library school a decade and a half ago. My memories of it were that it is a good story, full of insight about a people group and an area of the world I will likely never see. Reading it now as a parent gave me a slightly different take on it, though I still consider it a beautifully written (if at times difficult) story.
Shabanu is the story of Shabanu, a young Pakistani girl of the Cholistan desert, and her coming of age. Coming of age stories are usually a hit with me; I love tracking with a protagonist through their growth pains and realization of who they are and are becoming. The very plot of this novel turns on Shabanu’s coming to marriageable age. The story opens with Shabanu enjoying her camel, being outdoors, and essentially being the son her father never had. Her family is looking forward to and preparing for her older sister’s marriage to Hamir, to whom Phulan has been promised for years. Shabanu herself has been promised to Murad, the younger brother of Hamir, though their marriage is not in the immediate future. Shabanu is spirited, even rebellious at times, but she considers her future marriage to Murad with innocent curiosity and even anticipation. Murad seems like a good match for her. Of course, all of these pleasant plans are upended by a seemingly innocent turn of events, and we get to see the reality of life in a culture where women are considered property and girls don’t have the option of making up their own minds. Still, Shabanu keeps her selfhood intact thanks to the support of her very powerful and liberated aunt, and the story ends as well as it can for her.
This story really isn’t for the faint of heart. There’s a good bit of discussion and understanding about physical maturation and s**, and just the whole arranged marriage discussion is quite jarring to the western sensibility. However, it is eye-opening. Also, Shabanu is a very likable character–spunky and smart and self-aware. And then there are the camels! Oh, how I love Staples’ depiction of the relationship between the desert nomads and their camels! The whole nomadic lifestyle is interesting, and Staples paints vivid word pictures of the Cholistan desert, monsoon season, the hardships and joys of desert nomadic life, and the intricacies of the familial relationships.
I’m glad I re-read this one. I couldn’t hand this off to one of my girls without being willing to discuss some hard things with them,. However, in the interconnected world in which we live, some of the conversations this book would provoke are needful. Highly Recommended (with the aforementioned caveats). (Random House, 1989)