This is a story that involves issues, though author Elizabeth Laird has often insisted that she writes more about feelings than issues. From picture books such as Beautiful Bananas and King of the Supermarket to special interest books, books for older children and young adults as well as short novels, Laird is a prolific writer.
Oranges in No Man’s Land: By Elizabeth Laird, Macmillan Children’s Books, 115 pages, Rs248
Born in New Zealand, Laird had “always wanted to be a traveller. A railway line ran past the garden of my childhood home, and I used to lie awake listening to the trains chug by, wishing I was on one of them.”
Life for Laird, between 1945 and 1996, was a time of constant change — Malaysia, Ethiopia, India, Iraq (after her marriage), strife-torn Lebanon in the mid-1970s and, finally, Vienna. Among the other countries on her itinerary were Kenya, Palestine, Kazakhstan, Iran and Russia.
Life in the Lebanese capital during a bloody civil war gave her the first-hand experience to write Oranges in No Man’s Land, a short novel. It is a story about childhood. A story about what should have been an innocent time but, instead, was one shattered by political idealism that has turned chillingly violent and, often, meaningless.
Oranges in No Man’s Land is the story of life in troubled Lebanon through the eyes of 10-year-old Ayesha, who lives with her mother, granny and little brothers — Latif and Ahmed — in a rundown part of Beirut. One day, the bombs start falling and the family has to flee. Ayesha loses her mother but the rest of them manage to find a safer house to live in.
They meet others in the same, unfortunate situation, driven out of homes and left to fend for themselves. Ayesha’s family gets taken in by Mrs Zainab, who has a deaf and mute daughter, Samar. Ayesha and the girl become friends as Ayesha learns to communicate in sign language.
As the gun battles explode intermittently across the city, the children wonder what the conflict is all about. A time to play becomes a constant endeavour to survive and look after the family. Amidst all this, Laird brings out the incorruptibility of children caught in the mindless crossfire. Some of the stand-out moments in Ayesha’s life come when she visits the line of control where the normally-ferocious guards take a fancy to her brother and treat her well.
Trouble rears its head when granny falls dangerously ill. With no doctors around and the supply of medicines dwindling, Ayesha takes it into her head to go across No Man’s Land and consult Dr Leila, for whom granny worked when everything was normal. Ayesha’s adventures through two control zones manned by members of opposing forces, the tinderbox situation and her ingenuity form the rest of the narrative.
“Don’t grow up to hate anybody,” calls out Dr Leila as Ayesha makes her getaway in the ambulance. It is a message that is relevant at any point—whether it is the Beirut of the 1970s or the Afghanistan of today.
Laird belongs to the Beverley Naidoo — author of The Other Side of Truth and Journey to Jo’burg — school of storytelling. “Both Beverley and I write about young people caught up in intense conflicts — the courage and wit they need to survive and tests of friendship in extreme times,” she once said. Oranges in No Man’s Land and A Little Piece of Ground are two of Laird’s works that stand out.
The writer is the editor of Heek (e-heek.com), a children’s magazine.
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