The Day of the Pelican
by Katherine Paterson
It’s sometimes easier to distance oneself from a war if it’s halfway around the world. We think in terms of numbers rather than individuals and families, and believe that there is nothing we could possibly do to help. But Katherine Paterson’s book puts a face on one such family, and demonstrates that we can begin to help by changing our attitudes at home.
Paterson twines together the raw emotions and aura of fear that plagued the United States after September 11, 2001, along with the plight for Muslim refugees from Milosevic’s Kosovo who wound up in America at precisely that emotionally charged time. One of those families took shelter in Paterson’s home state of Vermont and inspired this moving novel. Eleven-year-old Meli Lleshi and her family make their home on Kosovo’s Plain of Dukagjin. The storks fly over the plain on their return from a winter in Africa. The land is as much a character in the novel as Meli’s younger brothers, eight-year-old Isuf and six-year-old Adlil. One day after school, Meli’s 13-year-old brother Mehmet goes missing. His family fears the worst, as stories begin to circulate about Milosevic’s Serbian soldiers rooting out the Albanian Kosovars. At last Mehmet returns home, after he is left for dead by the Serbian soldiers and saved by the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army). Paterson takes readers on the Lleshi family’s journey to find a place of sanctuary, and their resolve to do anything to keep Mehmet from joining the KLA. But even after much of the danger has passed, they have no store or apartment to return to—everything was destroyed. As Meli’s father, Baba, says, “War is madness…. It is the innocent who always suffer most.” Even in America, where the family decides to settle, new challenges await the Muslim family in the wake of 9/11. And the immigrant story, so familiar to generations of Americans, has a bittersweet thrust, as the children adjust more quickly to the language and culture differences than their parents do, and traditional family roles become muddied. Paterson exposes the complexities of a war halfway around the globe, and how its scars reach across an ocean. Young readers who did not know where Kosovo was before will not forget it after reading the Lleshis’ remarkable story.
You can watch Katherine Paterson and her longtime editor, Virginia Buckley, talk about the process of creating The Day of the Pelican here: