Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay

The Blurb On The Back:

See, the Tree of Bones calls.  Can you see?

More than a hundred years ago, a boy called Samkad thinks he knows everything about the world.  He knows the mountains he lives in.  He knows his people.  He knows his blood enemy, the Mangili.  And he wants to become a man, to be given his own shield, spear and axe to fight with.  His best friend, Luke, wants all the same things – except she is a girl, and no girl has ever become a warrior

But everything changes when a new boy arrives in the village.  He calls himself Samkad’s brother, yet he knows nothing of the ways of the mountain.  And he brings news of a people called ‘Americans’, who are bringing war and destruction right to his home …

You can buy BONE TALK by Candy Gourlay from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 1899 in the mountainous Bontok region of the Philippines.  

10-year-old Samkad lives in a small village with his father (his mother having died shortly after he was born).  The ancients in the village have just decided that Samkad is ready to become a man, which means he will receive a shield, a spear and an axe and receive the Cut.  Although a bit worried about the pain of getting the Cut, Samkad is looking forward to becoming a man despite the teasing of his best friend Luki, who really wishes that she could be a man instead of having to do women’s work and can fight as well as any of the boys in the village.

But when Samkad and his father go to the Tree of Bones to perform a ritual before Samkad enters the House of Men, something goes wrong and Samkad is told that he cannot become a man until a boy called Kinyo returns to the village.  Kinyo was born on the same day as Samkad and his mother also died shortly afterwards but he was taken to one of the lowland villages to be raised by his aunt.  

Samkad’s father volunteers to make the dangerous journey but when he returns, Kinyo is accompanied by a strange looking pale man called William who is from a strange place called America.  Shortly after more Americans arrive and it’s clear the they’re bringing death and destruction with them, which will change the lives of Samkad, Luki, Kinyo and their loved ones forever …

Candy Gourlay’s standalone historical novel for children aged 9+ is a sensitive coming-of-age story that combines the evils of colonialism with a magical realism vibe.  Gourlay does a great job of showing the clash between village life and the temptations that the Americans bring with them (and the terrible price that comes with it), depicting a period and conflict that was new to me and which I think children would be interested in.

I came to this book completely unaware of the American War (known in the US as the Philippine Insurrection) and with no knowledge at all of indigenous life in the Philippines.  Gourlay uses Samkad’s point of view narration to explain life in the village, the differences between how boys and girls are treated, their faith system and their relations with neighbouring tribes (notably their on-going war with the Mangili, which involves taking heads).  It’s all very sensitively and very subtly done – Gourlay gives you enough information to understand how Samkad and his father lives and has clearly done her research (there’s some information on this in the author’s note) but she never overwhelms the reader with information or makes it feel artificial.

Also well done is the relationship between Samkad and his father, which grows and develops after the Americans arrive.  Some of the best scenes for me came when the villagers are enlisted to help some American soldiers and as it becomes more clear that they are not good men and enjoy abusing their power over the indigenous men, Samkad’s view of his father – who has to kowtow in order to keep Samkad arrive – is affected.  Feeding into this is the fact that Kinyo is clearly enchanted by the Americans thanks to his relationship with the more kindly William (whose role is not wholly fleshed out but who seems to be some kind of missionary) and that enchantment colours his judgment when the soldiers arrive while also leaving Samkad confused about what he should think of them.

There are some beautifully written magical realist elements to the story, such as Samkad recounting his memories from when he was a baby but also the involvement of the spirits in village life and the rituals that must be done to appease them and protect against them.  I did want a little more information on some of the rituals (notably one towards the end of the book following a character death) but I can’t say that it affected my enjoyment.

Gourlay’s observations about colonialism are subtle and well made.  William is more benign than the soldiers but his presence still has a destabilising affect on the villagers and his influence over Kinyo has made the boy conflicted about village life as he clearly sees America as being superior.  There’s also a sensitively depicted aside about a first contact event with Americans who, unwittingly, bring disease to the village that results in tragedy.

If all this sounds very heavy for readers aged 9+ then I should say that while the subject matter is serious, Gourlay handles it in a completely age-appropriate way and the use of the coming-of-age structure means that I think many readers in the target age group will relate to Samkad and his concerns – especially his desire to be bigger and treated as an adult and his friendship with Luki, who teases him for being scrawny but also envies him for being a man because she’s unsatisfied with women’s work and thinks she could do a better job than Samkad.

All in all, I thought this was a well written book that tackles complicated topics in a sensitive way while also introducing readers to an area, history and people that I suspect many were otherwise unaware of.  It’s definitely worth a look if you want to encourage children to read more diversely or if you’re looking for a more diverse read yourself.   

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