Luke blames his father’s obsessive history project for his parents’ divorce, so spending Christmas with him while he continues to study an ancient civilization is the last thing the fifteen-year-old wants to do. And to make it worse, his dad insists on taking Luke halfway around the world to Peshawar, a bustling city on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. When Luke decides to reject spending time with his father at the nearby ruins, he instead gets a crash course in the music, customs, and tensions of contemporary Peshawar. Three other teens impact Luke as he struggles to forgive his father and witnesses pivotal moments in Pakistani history: Yusuf, an openhearted Afghan refugee, Danisha, a witty and rebellious advocate for girls’ education, and her older brother Rasheed, a budding radical extremist. When the holiday takes a shocking turn, Luke must rely on his new friends to make it home safely.
Author Doug Wilhelm’s bio notes that he traveled throughout Pakistan for several years as a journalist and teacher, and his love for Peshawar comes across through his thoughtful detailing of everything from qawa—a spiced green tea—to traffic patterns to the bustling bazaars. As a colorful and tumultuous city infused with thousands of years of history, Peshawar becomes a character in its own right. Wilhelm deftly explores the traditions, music, history, religions, and gender dynamics of 1980s Pakistani culture through his characters, with music in particular used as a point of connection throughout the novel. In one memorable scene, Luke joins a traditional jam session, then shares his favorite Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen songs with the musicians. Cross-cultural friendships, forged through sharing music and listening to each other, provide the backbone of the story.
Luke’s initial apathy may make it difficult for today’s largely passionate and politically-involved teens to find him relatable at first, but his willingness to learn is sure to win readers over. Rebuilding relationships after a divorce is complex and messy, making the quieter moments of Luke’s resentment and angst resonate even in the midst of a city teeming with more obvious conflicts. Ironically, Luke’s rejection of his father’s historical work kicks off his friendship with Yusuf, who introduces him to friends, teachers, concerts, and sacred spots. This ultimately gives Luke the insight he needs to appreciate the groundbreaking importance of his father’s discoveries.
STREET OF STORYTELLERS is both entertaining and highly educational, exploring the multifaceted political, cultural, and religious tensions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the 1980s in an accessible way for teenagers. Wilhelm successfully touches on the beginning of Osama bin Laden’s extremist movement in a pre-Taliban era without giving the militants a primary focus, making it clear that it was just one of many perspectives. An afterword further contextualizes the events Luke witnesses by sharing their impact in global politics over the next 20 years, from the formation of al-Qaeda to the suppression of girls’ education advocates to the development of Sufi rock as a musical genre.
Nuanced perspectives and historical context surrounding Pakistani culture add depth to the coming-of-age story at the heart of STREET OF STORYTELLERS. Author Doug Wilhelm particularly excels at immersing readers in the vibrant and chaotic streets of Old Peshawar through rich, sensory details.
~Cameron Gillespie for IndieReader