In 2012, when American writer R.J. Palacio published her first novel, Wonder, little did she expect it to hit the best-seller list and then stay there for weeks, selling 16 million copies to date. Although the book was classified as young-adult fiction, it touched readers irrespective of age, and in spite of its unlikely protagonist.
August (nicknamed Auggie), the 10-year-old boy around whom Palacio built her story, is special, but not in the way, say, Harry Potter is. August's distinctive feature is his face, which was deformed at birth. It is a source of mortification for him and sorrow for his loving parents. If adults avert their eyes when they see Auggie, small children run away in terror, and those close to his age bully and humiliate him. The story of Wonder continued to grow in Auggie and Me: Three Wonder Stories (2015), finding new readers, young and not-so-young, who were moved by the subtle messages Palacio deftly packed into her tales.
In White Bird, her latest book and first graphic novel, Palacio stays with the theme of difference. There is, in fact, a nod to Wonder as we meet Julian, the bully who became a source of terror for August, but as a much-chastened boy. As the story opens, Julian is on a FaceTime call with his grandmother, whose early life he wants to learn more about for a school project.
Julian's "grandmère" is French, born Sara Blum in a remote village in France in the 1930s. Her life became cleaved brutally as the Nazis occupied the country and began to persecute Jews. A terrifying raid on her school left Sara separated from her parents. She was rescued by a boy named Julien, who had sat next to her in class for three years, but never become her friend until that fateful day.
Julien is deformed, like August, though due to a childhood attack of polio. But worse still, he is a sewer worker's son, who is reviled by his classmates for his lowly origins and accused of being dirty and smelly, when he is certainly neither. The stink of prejudice is as ancient as humanity and common to societies all over the world, irrespective of geography and culture, but especially resonant for the caste-ridden society we live in in India.
Dreamy and heartwarming as Palacio's story is, bolstered by clean and colourful images, it doesn't shy away from the brutalities of the past or the present. In an epilogue, for instance, she invokes the current protests in America against racial discrimination to suggest the continuity of the barbarism of the past. The point is reinforced by the epigraph, a dire warning by George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The past, as Palacio shows with nuance and deftness, is never over. The present is merely evil is another disguise. She includes a glossary on the history of the Holocaust, anti-semitism, figures like Anne Frank, and real-life inspirations behind some of her the characters, such as the schoolteacher who refused to abandon his Jewish students, even as they were taken away by Nazi soldiers. History, as Karl Marx prophesied, is currently repeating itself as tragedy, all around us, be it in the US, as supporters of Donald Trump storm the Capitol, or the India, where human-rights activists are pushed into prisons for fighting for the dignity of the disenfranchised.
In spite of the unbearably tragic contours of the story, there is also a flickering of the embers of hope in White Bird—through the legacy of storytelling and the act of building bridges between generations, as also by confronting our personal cruelties, which lie hidden deep within us, often unbeknownst to us.
Daughter of Colombian migrants, Palacio grew up in a one-room apartment, sensitive to the plight of "foreigners" and people who are relegated to the margins due to their race, ethnicity and economic status. In White Bird, she is able to distill her personal experiences and knowledge of the contemporary world into a story that thrums with life and light, even in the midst of death and darkness. It is a tale to soothe the jagged edges of our fractious times.
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