By Ayad Akhtar
Little, Brown, 368 pp., $24.99
Hayat Shah is 10 when his mother’s best friend, Mina, comes from Pakistan to live with Hayat’s family in Milwaukee. Mina is fleeing a horrific divorce, young son Imran in tow; her arrival brings new life to the Shah household (where as Hayat points out, his mother had “been miserable for years’’ over her husband’s drinking and philandering). Hayat is living a comfortable suburban life - this being the pivot point between the ‘70s and the ‘80s, family time centers on evening viewings of “CHiPs’’ and “Three’s Company’’ - yet between his neurologist father’s brooding and his mother’s relentless nagging, Hayat says he’s “not convinced we were prepared to be happy.’’
In this remarkably self-assured, infectiously readable debut novel, Ayad Akhtar beams readers directly inside Hayat’s young mind. His growing love for Mina - as his revered “auntie,’’ focus of his budding sexual interest, and teacher of Islam through nightly Koran readings - feels sweet yet fraught. After listening to her read these lyrical holy verses, Hayat floats back to his room “my heart softened and sweet, my senses heightened.’’ Of course it’s headed toward disaster, but Akhtar lets the ensuring calamities unfold without melodrama. Along the way, Hayat learns that his beloved adults’ worst flaws sometimes coincide with what is most lovable and laudable about them, and that faith, mystery, and love have less to do with any religious text than with the human heart.
HAITI: The Aftershocks of History
By Laurent Dubois
Metropolitan, 448 pp., $32
When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, a worldwide outpouring of prayers, donations, and charitable help came bundled with news coverage that stressed the country’s difficult history, focused on its poverty, and in the worst cases appeared to blame the Haitian people for the disaster. As Laurent Dubois makes clear in his sweeping, passionate history of Haiti, the tendency of outsiders to express “overwhelmingly hostile and distorted views’’ of the country is nothing new.
The former French colony known as Saint-Domingue was reborn as Haiti - its name taken from the island’s indigenous people’s name for it, Ayiti - in 1804, following rebellion by its free people of color and armed insurrection by its slaves, the majority of whom were recently arrived from Africa. Surrounded by plantation slave colonies, Haiti’s self-emancipation threatened potential allies and trading partners in Europe and the Americas. Former French landowners, for whom the colony had been so profitable, regarded the situation as “a temporary setback.’’ Some proposed genocidal corrections. Facing constant threats led Haiti’s leaders to overspend on military power - further draining resources already strained by having to pay reparations to the planters. And that’s not to mention the difficulty, Dubois points out, of “building an economy based on free labor in a land entirely constructed around slavery.’’
The next two centuries saw a long US occupation, a series of puppet presidencies, the truly diabolical dictatorship of the Duvaliers, père et fils. And outsiders never quite stopped seeing Haiti as an exotic, dangerous place, home of Vodou, zombies, alleged cannibals. Still, Haiti and Haitians survived, just as they have for years, with “fury, solidarity, and determination.’’ Smart, honest, and utterly compelling, this book is the national biography this country and its people deserve.
THE GOOD NEWS CLUB: The Christian Right”s Stealth Assault on America”s Children
By Katherine Stewart
Public Affairs, 304 pp., $25.99
According to one “hallowed narrative, God was a welcome and vigorous presence in America’s public schools until the day that a cabal of activist judges, in cahoots with liberal interest groups, contradicted the will of the majority and decided to kick Him out of the classroom.’’ Popular among not only religious conservatives, but also wide swaths of moderates and even liberals, this legend has only one problem; according to journalist Katherine Stewart, it’s false. Stewart’s look at the role of religion - particularly evangelical Christianity - in our nation’s public schools begins by debunking this enduring myth. Early American schools did often include biblical instruction, Stewart finds, but the gradual move toward secularism in public education came because of a consensus that “in a pluralistic society the injection of religion into public schools is divisive, inherently unfair, and unsustainable.’’
Reporting from communities nationwide, Stewart chronicles just how divisive the infusion of religion - in the form of proselytizing Good News Clubs, school building rentals to church groups, and axe-grinding school textbook committees - can be. And although many of these activities are represented as emerging from grass-roots community demand, Stewart exposes a much more coordinated effort, much of it springing from national evangelical organizations and affiliated legal strategy networks. Using “the language of liberalism and relativism’’ - choice, freedom, tolerance - groups establish a presence in public schools so they can convert children they consider “unreached’’ as well as those whose parents take them to churches insufficiently “Bible-believing’’ (beware, United Methodists!). Perhaps more troubling, Stewart ponders, are hints that these organizations - most of whom fervently promote home-schooling - would be happy to destroy public education altogether.