In 1998 Kosovo was a country divided between the Serbs and the Albanians. In this coming-of-age story, Albanian Meli Lleshi grows up in the context of persecution and ethnic cleansing that is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
The Day of the Pelican opens with Meli’s older brother, Mehmet, disappearing on the way home from school. The family fears he has been kidnapped or killed by their Serbian oppressors. When he finally returns weeks later, Baba (their father) decides they all must seek safety outside of their beloved Kosovo. The family lives in exile in a KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) camp, then with relatives, and finally in a refugee camp. Meli faces the humiliation of having her home, her family’s jewelry, identification cards, money, and finally the family farm, ripped from her family’s hands.
Despite losing all of their possessions, the family sticks together and Baba decides that their best chance at survival is in America. Only the children know English and the reader gets a painful glimpse into the difficulties of immigrating into a country where the language and customs are vastly different.
Even after this Muslim family achieves a small measure of success and security in rural Vermont, they experience a new type of persecution following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Both Memet and Meli become targets of racial prejudice from their soccer teammates and their old angers and fears resurface. In a poignant scene at the end, Baba tells their coaches, “Tell [the teachers] my children wish to be respected as fellow teammates and not despised because of their heritage. This is the way of the old country. This is America, tell them. In America, everyone has a new beginning.” (p. 135)
Although this is a contemporary story, it is tied to real historical events and people during the war in Kosovo in 1998-1999 and the bombing of the twin towers on 9/11. As a result, I categorize the book as contemporary historical fiction. Like The Kite Runner, which takes place in Afghanistan at the end of the 20th century and into the beginning of the 21st, these stories dramatize true, contemporary events that are now a part of world history.
Katherine Patterson based this story on interviews with a refugee family from Kosovo who were sponsored by her church in Vermont. This well-written novel concludes with historical notes which inform the reader and give the facts that lay behind this story. This book would be useful in middle school and high school classrooms as a starting point for a discussion about racial prejudice, ethnic cleansing, and problems which immigrants face both now, and in “past” history.
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