Two 14-year-old Muslim girls struggle through the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, fleeing danger and certain death. To keep their spirits up, Yasmine tells Tamanna stories from her British childhood of Babar, the gray elephant in a green suit.
This sweet scene is one of several such moments in Thunder over Kandahar, a novel that careens between moments of deep humanity and shocking violence. For this story of two girls trapped in the middle of the conflict, Governor General’s Literary Award–winning author Sharon E. McKay spent three weeks in Afghanistan, visiting schools and travelling to the front lines with Canadian troops. Her research shines through on every page.
Careful to show both sides of the cultural divide, McKay avoids passing judgment. She uses as much detail as possible to illuminate the realities of the conflict, but steers away from imprinting Western values on the action. In one incident, a bus driver takes a bribe from the girls, then tells the other passengers they are his sisters. Because Muslim girls should not be travelling alone, the lie is considered “proper and expected.”
McKay offers rich descriptions of food, clothing, houses, landscape, military procedures, and local traditions. However, the details sometimes threaten to overwhelm the story. Also, coincidence plays a large role in the narrative, particularly in the story of Tamanna’s missing twin brother, who stretches credulity by appearing at not one, but two critical points. And how convenient that the girls happen to stumble upon a woman in the mountains who is able to tell a first-hand story of the Russian involvement in Afghanistan’s troubled past.
These are minor quibbles, however, and more than compensated for by the novel’s fast-paced action and appealing characters. In telling Yasmine and Tamanna’s story, McKay brings young readers face to face with the realities of modern Afghanistan, both the dark and the light.