Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
We are the ones that disappeared,
That ran, that got lost, that chose to go.
We are the ones tricked or chosen, sold or taken by larger hands than ours.
We are the eyes that turned from the fist.
We are the feet that ran from the fear, from the
anger, from the pain, from the empty promises of love and care.
These few lines from the poem at the end of the book embody what this book is about. It is about the estimated 30 million people currently enslaved in the world today, more than at any other time in human history. Over a quarter of those are children. They equate to more than the “entire child populations of Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales put together” (251).
The author has chosen eleven year old Esra Merkes, with companions Miran, Isa, and the street wise but free Skeet who befriends these stolen children, to tell this confronting, yet at the same time beautiful, story of those who are marginalized in our modern society.
Esra, Miran and Isa have developed a strong bond of friendship and reliance on each other through their shared physical, emotional, social and intellectual deprivation after being locked in an airless basement to tend some plants. They are not the first to be given this task. The two older children have become the protectors of seven year old Isa and all bear the Snakeskin tattoo of their owner, Orlando, a manipulative and cruel man who does not shy from severe harsh punishment for those who do not live up to his high expectations. Everything they receive has a price which can never be repaid so they are trapped. “He showed us how much we all owed, the thousands and thousands of dollars…We owed him for every sip of water we’d taken and every crumb we’d eaten… we were to pay him back every bit … by hard work and hard hours all day every day…(and) he showed what happens when we don’t work hard enough, or fast enough” (12).
A fire in the basement provides the opportunity for them to run but not all of them will be free. Those that are do not go far, as they need to stay close to their friend and try to rescue him. A chance meeting with another emotionally deprived child, Skeet, who nonetheless is an incorrigibly cheerful and chatty boy who insists on helping them means that they are eventually reunited with their companion, but are they really free? Whatever the outcome, they have hope that will be with them forever. The snake tattoo on Esra’s arm is now transformed to that of a fox which has special meaning for her and the letters OP have now been changed to HOPE.
This book should be sad and depressing. It is sad, but the children show humour, bravery, strength and wisdom beyond their years, which makes this book an interesting read. Yes it is confronting, because it involves a part of society about which the majority prefer not to think. It makes the reader accept the truth about man’s inhumanity to man and everyone’s desire for freedom. “I am Esra Merkes. They do not know me. They do not know I can wait. They do not know, one day, I will be free” (1). This is a story about the resilience of childhood and that unwavering belief in an imagined Someday that keeps hope alive.
Melbourne-born Zana Fraillon has written several books, two picture books for small children, a series for middle readers and a novel for older readers. Her writing has attracted much attention and her book, The Bone Sparrow, which was published in 2016 was shortlisted for many awards including the ABIA (which she won in May 2017), the CBCA and the Victorian Premier’s Literary awards, as well as for the Carnegie Medal. This book tells the story of another displaced child who was born in an Australian immigration detention centre.
The author says she gained inspiration for her writing from things she has seen, researched or been told. One example was an exhibition of photos of children living in refugee camps in a café in London. A photo of an eleven year old girl was accompanied by a quotation from her, “You world, in spite of your vastness, and my littleness, I want to talk and raise my voice high” (253).
Through her writing Fraillon has tried to be the voice for these children. The novel, the ones that disappeared, is beautifully written, powerful, and heartbreaking and should be read by people of all ages, not just young adults.
By Zana Fraillon