a bookclique pick from Katie Noah Gibson
I’ve always loved maps. Since I was a child sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, tracing our summer road-trip routes on the pages of my dad’s United States atlas, I’ve been fascinated by those collections of lines and space. They help us navigate the physical world, but they tell us so much more than where we’ve been and where we’re going. For Nour, the twelve-year-old narrator of Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s novel The Map of Salt and Stars, maps are her mother’s livelihood and her family’s lingua franca. But one map in particular may guide her to a brand-new home.
After her father’s death, Nour and her mother and sisters have returned to Syria from New York City. When their home and neighborhood are bombed, the women become refugees, forced into a life on the move throughout the Middle East with millions of others. As they travel from Syria to Jordan and across northern Africa, Nour’s story unfolds alongside the legend of Rawiya, a young woman who disguised herself as a boy so she could become apprentice to a famed medieval mapmaker. Each section of the book is marked by a modern-day country — Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco — and contains both Nour’s and Rawiya’s experiences in that land. Separated from the rest of their family, Nour and her sister, Zahra, must decipher one of their mother’s elaborately painted maps to find their way to safety, far from any of the homes they have ever known.
Joukhadar mixes Nour’s synesthetic impressions with sharp, photographic images of destruction and loss, mapping her harrowing journey not by miles but by stories. Rawiya’s adventures are equally compelling: as she and her companions seek to map the entire known world, they cover much of the same ground Nour’s family will traverse, centuries later. Both girls encounter terrors and challenges they never imagined, and both must find the courage to create new paths for themselves. Joukhadar’s absorbing narrative offers a vividly particular glimpse into the current refugee crisis, and two unforgettable heroines united by their bravery and hope.