Najmah, a young Afghan girl whose name means "star," suddenly finds herself alone when her father and older brother are conscripted by the Taliban and her mother and newborn brother are killed in an air raid. An American woman, Elaine, whose Islamic name is Nusrat, is also on her own. She waits out the war in Peshawar, Pakistan, teaching refugee children under the persimmon tree in her garden while her Afghan doctor husband runs a clinic in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Najmah's father had always assured her that the stars would take care of her, just as Nusrat's husband had promised that they would tell Nusrat where he was and that he was safe. As the two look to the skies for answers, their fates entwine. Najmah, seeking refuge and hoping to find her father and brother, begins the perilous journey through the mountains to cross the border into Pakistan. And Nusrat's persimmon-tree school awaits Najmah's arrival. Together, they both seek their way home.
Known for her award-winning fiction set in South Asia, Suzanne Fisher Staples revisits that part of the world in this beautifully written, heartrending novel.
Under the Persimmon Tree is a 2006 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
Suzanne Fisher Staples
It’s been many years since I left my newspaper job for the somewhat less predictable world of writing books. Still, most mornings I wake up and thank my lucky stars that I no longer have to pull on pantyhose, only to fight traffic on the way to the bureau; that I can walk the dog in the orange grove after lunch and finish the newspaper; that I spend my days making up stories and talking with children, not dealing with irascible news editors, slippery politicians, and oily flacks.
I grew up loving books. My grandmother read to us every day and bribed us with stories to help in her rock garden. There, among the bleeding hearts and irises and peonies, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’ve always written: journals, letters, school papers, essays, and, when I grew up, news reports.
But I could never imagine writing a novel. Whatever could I write about that would sustain anyone’s interest for two hundred or more pages?
The answer never occurred to me until I went to Pakistan. There was something about the camels, the ancient stories and blue-tiled mosques, and people who build shrines where a beautiful poem was written, that set my heart to singing. And there was something about our ignorance here in the West about Islamic people that made me know a story about this place needed to be told. And so my writing career began with Shabanu and Haveli.
After I left Pakistan, I wondered whether I would ever find anything that fired my soul as the people of the Cholistan Desert had. I returned to America somewhat apprehensive. It’s easy to be sparked by the exotic places of the world. But what about finding inspiration in the familiar?
And then I settled in a small and beautiful corner of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. There on the Chesapeake Bay, the mud and the pines and the grasses and the water and all the things that live in and among them spoke to me like characters in a book. I began to see the exotic everywhere.
While I was living in Asia, I thought of the United States as a place where the phones and the political system work, and people are tolerant of each other. When I came home I found that some things here were worse than all the poverty and sickness and intolerance I’d encountered in Asia. I met two children who lived on the farm next to our property on the Eastern Shore, one black, one white. Their friendship was based on fishing and swimming and exploring the woods and the creeks. As they approached adolescence, their families began to steer them away from each other. From then on, their stories fell into two distinct patterns. The white boy went to a private school. The black boy was later killed during a dispute over drugs. For all the beauty of the Eastern Shore, racism was one of its healthiest institutions. People were so familiar with it they couldn’t see how heartbreaking it was. And that was the genesis of Dangerous Skies.
My husband, Wayne, and I live in the hills of Tennessee, where we love to hike and canoe and watch the eagles soar over valleys that are shrouded in pale blue mist. I know now that the world is wondrous and wide, and I hope I will never cease to be moved by places and people who give rise to ideas for stories. Because stories are the most important thing in the world. They teach us how to live, how to love, and, most important, how to find magic wherever we are.
Suzanne Fisher Staples was born in 1945 and grew up beside a lake in the hilly farmland near Scranton, Pennsylvania. She worked as a news reporter in Asia for twelve years, serving in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka with United Press International. She also worked in Washington, D.C., as an editor at The Washington Post.
“Staples powerfully and honestly expresses the plight of a civilization caught between terrorists and American bombs.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“As with her Newbery Honor Book, SHABANU (1989), it's the personal story, not the history, that compels as it takes readers beyond the modern stereotypes of Muslims as fundamentalist fanatics. There's hope in heartbreaking scenes of kindness and courage.” —Booklist, Starred Review
“Readers...will welcome this fascinating glimpse into a world about which far too little has been written.” —School Library Journal
“Staples brings beautiful, war-torn Afghanistan closer in this affecting, eye-opening novel.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The book manages to make the sometimes distant-seeming conflict immediate and vivid to American readers. A poignant picture of the cost of regional and global turmoil.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
“Staples's prose is spare yet taut with emotion, creating a rich, powerful story that young readers will devour and that all school and classroom libraries should stock.” —VOYA