Published May 2017 by Grove Atlantic
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review
Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of Benny and Khin, husband and wife, and their daughter Louisa.
After attending school in Calcutta, Benny settles in Rangoon, then part of the British Empire, and falls in love with Khin, a woman who is part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. World War II comes to Southeast Asia, and Benny and Khin must go into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation, beginning a journey that will lead them to change the country’s history.
After the war, the British authorities make a deal with the Burman nationalists, led by Aung San, whose party gains control of the country. When Aung San is assassinated, his successor ignores the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and in doing so sets off what will become the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin’s eldest child, Louisa, has a danger-filled, tempestuous childhood and reaches prominence as Burma’s first beauty queen soon before the country falls to dictatorship. As Louisa navigates her newfound fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the West’s ongoing covert dealings in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people.
I know we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover but, let's be honest, covers are important. When you're browsing the book store or web page or Netgalley, it's the book cover that will make you pull a book off the shelf (either literally or figuratively). It's the cover of Miss Burma that grabbed my attention first. But it was the book's description, and its reference to the Karen people, that made me request the book.
In Mini-me's final year of college, he took a volunteer position at the Intercultural Senior Center where he met Karen refugees (among a number of other cultural refugees). It was the first time I had heard about this minority people who been persecuted in their homeland for centuries. When I read the summary of this book and saw that it was about these people and their struggles, I couldn't wait to read it.
The book spans decades, from young Benny becoming an orphan to an adult Louisa making a final appeal to try to save the Karen people. As the spotlight moved from Benny and Khin to Louisa, I sometimes had a hard time figuring out who the focus was meant to be on and I had a tough time shifting my own interest from Benny and Khin to Louisa. Which is not to say that Louisa was not as interesting a character as her parents. In fact, Craig's characters are all fascinating and complicated, as are the relationships between the characters.
This is a tough read. Terrible things have been done to the minorities in Burma, not just by the majority but also by the British, the Japanese and the Americans. Terrible things are done to the people in this book and Craig does not shy away from details. She clearly wants readers to understand the horrors that humans are capable to committing. The atrocities are not drawn out, though, because this is a story about one family's part in the Karen's struggle and in their own struggle to understand and live with each other. The fact that Benny is Jewish is also an underlying storyline that impacts the family throughout their lives.
It's always a good thing to read venture afield in your reading, to learn about other lands and other peoples. It's especially valuable exercise when a book is as well done as Miss Burma. It is an emotional work that was at once hard to read and hard to put down.
|The real Louisa and her father, Saw Benson (which was the name Benny became known as in the book)|
Only after finishing the book did I discover that this is more than just a novel based on historical fact; it is a novel very closely based on Craig's own grandparents and mother. I almost certainly would have read the book differently had I known that going in so I'm glad I didn't. But it absolutely makes me think differently of the book knowing how much of the book was real.