Alice Walsh’s A Long Way from Home is a compassionately told novel that straddles the line between children’s and young adult fiction, and the story it tells will appeal to younger and older audiences alike.
The book features three points of view. Rabia, a fourteen-year old refugee from Afghanistan who happens to be traveling to the US on September 11, 2001, is the story’s main protagonist. In Rabia, readers will find a character that is obedient to her family but perceptive of the limitations their situation puts on her future. As Rabia struggles to lead what remains of her family out of Afghanistan to the safer prospects of the US, she confronts her mother’s unwillingness to leave and the many dangers inherent in making the trip itself. However, her subsequent stranding in Newfoundland as US-bound planes are diverted in the wake of 9/11 serves the dual purpose of increasing the danger of her position—it is uncertain through much of the story whether she will in fact reach the US—and allowing additional narrative perspectives to enrich the story’s telling.
Colin, who offers the story’s second perspective, is an occasionally petulant American boy returning from a trip to London with his mother on the same flight as Rabia. As events unfold and his access to information is limited, he becomes increasingly worried about his father’s safety in New York. He predictably responds to the news of the attack on the twin towers by treating Rabia with hostility and suspicion, but his eventual sympathy for Rabia and her family complicate the story’s exploration of racial tensions following 9/11.
Furthermore, Leah, a Newfoundlander whose family volunteers to host the stranded airline passengers, gives a more neutral third perspective of the situation, and her good-natured sensitivity bridges the differences between Rabia and Colin and buffers the story’s tensions.
Much has been written about 9/11 in the intervening years since 2001, but this story uses the tragedy as the story’s occasion but not its focus. As Rabia, Colin, and Leah all worry about their own families—the personal, rather than the political—children who are not familiar with the political nuances of the event will nonetheless find the characters easy to relate to. Rabia’s past may, however, be upsetting to younger readers, as the hardships of being a young girl growing up in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are honestly and rather vividly portrayed.
Although the writing occasionally does feel like it is aimed at children—a bit too much background information is given here, or a line of rather forced dialogue appears there—the voice is generally clear and crisp, and the pacing of the story is fast. A Long Way from Home elegantly delivers readers to a place of understanding as the three young narrators are forced by circumstance to get to know each other and confront their own fears about the security of their families.