Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: "Seven Daughters and Seven Sons" by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy

Buran is the fourth of her father's seven daughters, and the apple of his eye--but her village of Baghdad doesn't see it that way. While her uncle's seven sons venture off to make their fortunes, Buran and her sisters can do nothing to save their impoverished family. As women, they are forbidden to leave the house to work, and no one will marry such poor brides.

With her father's reluctant blessing, Buran disguises herself as a man and joins a caravan bound for Tyre. She plots to match the success of her uncle's sons, providing for her sisters and giving her father a reason to hold his head up high. But her cleverness might prove her undoing, when it brings her to the attention of the prince himself.

  5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

My greatest struggle with rating and reviewing Seven Daughters and Seven Sons has been determining whether or not to consider it "young adult literature." It's a short tale, written in fairly simple (though not unlovely) language, and remains fairly light in its handling. On the other hand, the storyline takes several mature bends which might not be appropriate for younger audiences--if the outraged mommy reviews on Amazon are anything to go by.

(Lest I forget, the "mature" sections in question are: Buran, while alone, strips out of her masculine disguise and contemplates her naked body; and when she encounters one of her beastly male cousins again, he offers to sleep with her if she'll pay his debts. [She declines.] Neither scene is graphic or prolonged, but perhaps not for the average ten-year-old.)

With that out of the way--

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons is a delightful and well-written fable of the ancient Middle East. According to the author, it is based on Iraqi folk tradition, but my (admittedly cursory) search has turned up no other versions of the story than this one. Possibly it has overwritten what original lore might have been, just as Disney's Mulan swallowed up most of the actual legend of Hua Mulan. I would dearly love to know more about the original Buran, whether historical or mythical; but this short novel's treatment of her story pleases me enough as it is.

There is a lot of ambient misogyny in the story, and not mild, either. Seven Daughters and Seven Sons isn't just a crossdressing adventure story, it direct addresses the sexism of the society that makes her disguise necessary. For some readers, that may be a turn-off. For others, it might be the latent homophobia in Prince Mahmud's insistence that his friend "Nasir" must be a woman, because Mahmud is in love with him.

But I love the expansive woman's-eye view the authors took of Buran's world. She shakes up the modern Western reader's expectations that women in the Middle East have always been oppressed and downtrodden. She references the great queens of previous eras and how women used to be welcome at the Nizamiyya College of Theology, before the caliphate enforced segregation and the wearing of the hijab. It is her knowledge of the medicinal remedies used by village women, overlooked by male traders, which opens up the chance for her to earn money for her family.

She is quick to defend other women in the story, identifying herself as an example that women are worthy of respect, rather than letting other characters use her as an outlier. I found this especially welcome after so many narratives where a heroine's value comes from being Not Like Other Girls. (Wouldn't it be great if more authors could create admirable female characters without putting down every one of their peers? No? Just me? Right.)
"You're the only son?"

"Hmm... yes. The only kind of son my father will ever have."

"Are you the eldest?"

"No, I'm the fourth."

I laughed. "What rejoicing there must have been the day you were born! In an instant the name of your father changed from Abu al-Banat [Father of Daughters] to Abu Nasir [Father of Nasir]. He must bless your name with every breath he takes."

"My father loves me," he said. His voice was so low I had to lean forward to hear him. "He loves my sisters too."

"Of course, of course," I replied. "But what are six daughters, or even twelve daughters, compared to one son?"

His glance locked mine. "Daughters can do very well," he said. There was a surprising undertone of anger in his voice.
Another element of the story that I loved is how much broader Buran's adventure is than her love story with Prince Mahmud. Although Mahmud narrates the middle third of the book--giving an alternate view of Buran's masculine identity, "Nasir"--Buran's adventure is primarily about taking care of her family. As a merchant, both as Nasir and as herself, she explores other cities and cultures around the Middle East and the Mediterranean, ranging from Baghdad to Alexandria, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Tripoli. There are small lessons about economics and entrepreneurship throughout the book which, might I add, are awfully cute.

As usual, I've probably made this book sound dull and tedious instead of charming and delightful. Gotta work on that. I like talking about boring ordinary things the best, though; the sparkling humor and clever twists the story takes speak enough for themselves.

The average reader could get to the end of this book in a day, easy; one might be tempted to start back at the beginning again. I have cautions about the book, evidently, but no criticisms. Seven Daughters and Seven Sons has my full recommendation.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: socialized misogyny, homophobia

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