Pretty Birds

by Scott Simon

I picked up this book because I recognize Scott Simon from NPR. Simon is a NPR Weekend Edition host, and a journalist who has won many award including the Emmy and the Peabody. This is a novel based on his experience covering the war in Sarajevo and his interview with one of the teenage girl snipers.

During the conflict, both sides employed teenage girls to act as snipers. This free up men to battle in the front, and also for the fact that teenage girls have the cool, discipline and patience less common in boys of the same age. This story is not a biography but rather an active imagination based on his interviews.

Irena is a 17 year old with a Serbian father and Muslim mother. This fact doesn’t much concern her – what she is interested in, are her basketball team, her Air Jordan, her coach, and the little African Grey parrot she keeps, Pretty Bird. However, all that is changed when the Bosnian Serbs begin their campaign of ethnic cleansing, and Irena and her parents are brutalized and driven from their home on the mostly Serb side of town. They fled to her grandmother’s apartment, only to find her slain on the staircase. Irena begins working at a brewery, which is actually a front for a team of snipers. An assistant principal from her former high school spots the talent in Irena, and she becomes very good at her job.

This is a powerful story of human survivial in adversity. Time and again we are reminded of the humanness of all characters involved – ordinary people trying their best to survive, hoping for the best for their loved ones. Irena especially is a vibrant character, but others have their shining moments too, including the nurse at the hospital, the vet, and the other members at the brewery.

The story is made more impactful by the sense of humor throughout. When the driver is kidnapped and later moved by how much ransom his group is willing to pay, he is told that they are paying for his truck. When young Irena has a chance to talk to her Christian friend Amela over radio, they screams over the divorce of Prince Charles and Diana. A character tells a joke “What is the difference between here and Auschwitz?” “They have gas, we don’t”.

Admittedly, this story only tells one side of the story, and as a fiction rather than an unbiased news report, it does take side. However, one walks away from the book with a strong sense that war is brutal. It reduces people to live in unhuman condition, in divides friends into enemy.

Published in: on January 19, 2009 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great review! 🙂

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