Book Review: Children of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji

December 2008
Quill & Quire

child of dandelionsIn 1972, Idi Amin had a dream in which God told him to expel Uganda’s 80,000 ethnic Indians. They had 90 days to leave. Set during this tumultuous period, Child of Dandelions is a stirring coming-of-age novel that follows 15-year-old Sabine as she copes with the reality that she and her family are no longer welcome in the land of her birth.

Shenaaz Nanji, who was born in Kenya and now lives in Calgary, carefully builds tension during this 90-day countdown. On day one, when Sabine watches a crowd cheer the announcement, her best friend Zena (who is African) calmly tells her not to worry, since Amin only wants to get rid of Indians with a British passport. But as the days go by, Sabine realizes that there’s an even darker side to the expulsion order: first her beloved uncle goes missing, then soldiers burst into her home searching for her businessman father.

Drawing on her own experiences for this, her first YA novel, Nanji creates a nuanced story that addresses issues of class and race. Indian shopkeepers ignore Zena, the girls’ friendship becomes strained, and she realizes her own parents treat their servants the way they would untouchables in India. Sabine’s family must make some difficult choices, and she and her younger brother get separated from their parents. Though she keeps the graphic details to a minimum, Nanji deftly depicts Sabine’s anxiety.

The novel’s only weak spot is the too-tidy airport reconciliation between Zena and Sabine. Otherwise, Nanji dramatizes an episode that brought thousands of refugees to Canada, and she highlights the horrors they and others faced. The novel ends with a postscript that suggests the exiled Indians were the lucky ones, given the estimated half-a-million Ugandans who were killed during the Amin regime.

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