________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 9 . . . . November 3, 2017


Ghost Boys.

Shenaaz Nanji.
Toronto, ON: Mawenzi House, 2017.
182 pp., trade pbk. & HTML, $18.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-988449-13-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-988449-23-4 (HTML).

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4



Master raised his stick to start the race. The trainers hit the hind legs of the camels and they rose like sand hills. "Bismillah!" the trainers shouted, hitting the camels' legs again, and the beasts cantered away across the sandy track, the terrified boys screaming, tearing Munna's heart apart like paper.

"The louder the screams, the faster the camels run," said Master. "Come, helper, we'll chase them by car." They sat inside the truck. Master drove on the outer tarmac track, chasing the jockeys on camels, monitoring every swing of their gallops, honking and yelling in the walkie-talkie: "Faster, faster. Whip them. Harder, harder." The whips whirred as the boys whacked the camels.

When the race came to a close, Master drove to the finish line to receive the jockeys. Much to Munna's chagrin, the first boy was Akber. Master patted the boy's back. "Good job. You'll eat with the Big Boys." He looked at Munna. "Akber's our best jockey."

Babur came in last. Munna lifted the dejected boy off his camel and kissed his cheek.

"No coddling," warned Master.

The next practice race began as the sun broke over the horizon, painting the sky a pale shade of pink. It was hard to believe that this same sun would later turn so relentless and burn them.

Master handed a notebook to Munna. "Jot down the timings of each race," he said. "They'll help us make effective decisions for the big day."

Munna checked the time on his watch. The first race had lasted an hour, but it included the prep and the break. Still five more to go. But as the races progressed, it took longer for the camels to complete the circuit because unlike horses, camels are clumsy. They would cut across in front of each other or run in zig-zags instead of straight. Some of them, like the slow Shenu, would turn around and head back to the start. Also, camels don't steer well. Approaching corners, they often bumped into each other or against the railings. Sometimes they suddenly sat down, as if to say they had had enough. Then the jockeys whipped them.

The races went on until noon, when the sun blazed like a ball of fire. On their way back to the ousbah, Munna and the trainers led the train of weary camel boys, each of them clutching the reins of their equally weary camels, casting little shadows on the sand. In sheer misery, they plodded across the sun-scorched sand. Sweat ran down their faces, attracting strange-looking insects that sucked at every molecule of moisture.

Munna is only 15 when he leaves his poor family in India with the hope of finding a job and bringing home enough money for his sisters' dowries and his mother's well-being. Like most young boys, Munna has dreams of more education and a bright future, but instead he is taken by the man he calls Uncle and under suspicious circumstances to work at a Sheikh's camel farm in a Gulf country. He is tasked with looking after the camels as well as training the camel jockeys, young boys brought to the farm to compete in the Gold Sword Race. The jockeys are trapped, and Munna feels the same. His only hope is to escape the farm and its mean Master-ji and somehow find his way home to his family.

      Munna is the likeable protagonist of this action/adventure novel for young adults. He has a strong sense of honour both to his family back in India and to the young boys who are under his command. He quickly realizes that the life of a camel jockey is horrendous. The boys are too young to be away from home but have been sold by impoverished parents in the hope that camel racing will give them some slight chance at a better life. They are constantly undernourished in an effort to keep their riding weight as low as possible. Munna works hard to gain their respect and co-operation and to show them that he is nothing like the dreaded Master-ji who is too quick to anger and punishment.

      Nanji gives her readers a story rich in detail. Readers feel the omnipresent desert sun and sand as well as seeing the heart-breaking poverty of Munna's family in India. The author has researched the setting carefully, and details of her sources regarding camel jockeys and human trafficking can be found in the brief author's notes at the end of the story. Within the text, she uses a variety of terms unfamiliar to a Canadian reader. While some can be understood from their context, a glossary would be a helpful addition to the novel.

      Ghost Boys is full of adventure and focuses mostly on the young boys who are camel jockeys and Munna's relationship with them. The author also includes a Canadian scientist and his teenage daughter as well as the Sheikh and his daughter, so there are a couple of small female roles. Nevertheless, both male and female young adult readers will enjoy the fast pacing of the story and the excitement as it builds to the finale of the Gold Sword Race.

      There are more serious themes to be considered as well, some of which find their way into "Questions and Ideas for Discussion" at the end of the novel. Underlying the story is the basic motif of freedom which is demonstrated in the human trafficking which supplies young South Asian boys as camel jockeys. There are issues of both neglect and abuse within the novel. Munna is concerned about his own freedom and that of his charges and is continually faced with the decision whether to stay and fight or to find the quickest and easiest way to save himself and return to India. Munna's dilemma brings in the theme of honour. While this is clearly shown in Munna's desire to provide for his sisters and his mother, it is also obvious that Munna feels an obligation and responsibility for the young camel jockeys. His honour will not allow him to sacrifice their freedom for his own. Their welfare overcomes his instinct for self-preservation. These young camel jockeys are the ghost boys of the title, forgotten and invisible and apparently unimportant even to their own families. Like them, Munna has often felt he was cursed and unaccepted by those around him. His actions at the Ousbah show that he has changed and matured and is capable of dealing both with the camels and the boys who ride them.

      While the ending of Ghost Boys seems just a little too neat, this is a coming-of-age book which will capture the imaginations and emotions of young readers and perhaps will cause them to delve just a little more deeply into some of the serious societal and political problems presented by Nanji.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.

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