The Book of Jonas tells the story of how one young teen’s life is torn apart by the reality of war, and how ever after he and one soldier in particular are affected by the events set in motion that one night in a far away country.
Younis is a young teen, maybe 14 or so, the night he gets up to empty his bladder in the outdoor toilet and inadvertently manages to avoid the bombs that collapse his family home, even though he’s gravely wounded. He flees to a mountain cave, where he is met by an American soldier, Christopher Henderson, who keeps a journal of everything that happens.
Later, airlifted away from the village, he is taken in by an American NGO who send him to live in America with a host family who obviously haven’t done their homework on cultural sensitivity. Younis, now going by Jonas, grows up in a Pennsylvania suburb. He’s bullied at school and responds eventually with such violence that he ends up in forced therapy, and those sessions form a sort of framework for the beginning sections of the book.
The Book of Jonas is framed within headings that echo with a religious resonance: Processional, Invocation, Remembrance, Communion, Confession, Atonement, Benediction, Recessional. Within this, however, the action moves back and forth between Younis’ village childhood and Jonas’ young adulthood in America, news clippings of the village attack and discussions of its legitimacy, descriptions of photos of soldiers. Through excerpts from Christopher’s journal, we see how two sides come to distrust each other and how the lines between militia and civilian can become blurred, and we watch as personal morality withers and dies although choice is always argued for.
We see Jonas float through life, relying more and more on alcohol to dull his pain. School is initially easy and he’s obviously independent–he learned English from his family–but he is rootless, unwilling to share his past, and desperate, with an underlying anger. We meet Rose Henderson, whose son is missing in action and as a result, has started support groups. When she and Jonas eventually meet, under a large framed picture of her son in uniform hung over the mantel of her home, something begins to open and change in Jonas, leading to destruction. And ultimately, our own hearts are broken as well, for all the wreckage of war, even amongst those who physically survive but are emotionally ruined.
The Book of Jonas isn’t an easy read, but it’s use of spare prose keeps it somewhat detached, although it’s certainly heart-wrenching. It takes a clear-eyed look at the terrible price of war and at those who pay it; innocent children, confused adults, soldiers and their families, those who try to love the broken. It’s definitely worth reading. I highly recommend it.