Review—Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

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Escape from Aleppo is a middle grade novel by N.H. Senzai about one girl’s escape from the Syrian city of Aleppo when fighting reaches the city.

The novel opens with Nadia being awoken in the early morning; her family are finally leaving the city for good. She hasn’t left her house since she was injured by shrapnel from a barmeela that exploded nearby while she was on line for bread. As Nadia hesitates before exiting the building, a bomb goes off, separating her from the rest of her family. They reluctantly move on, and she spends the rest of the novel trying to make her way through the city to the Turkish border where her father is waiting for her.

Nadia makes friends along the way, and the travelers move in a group, avoiding fighters and officials of all kinds—there are Assad’s secret police (mukhabarat) and the shabiha; there are countless rebel groups; and there are a scary new rebel group that flies black flags and persecutes groups that don’t follow their brand of Islam.  

What this book does beautifully is show how regular Syrians like Nadia are caught between the all the factions that are fighting. And while the “rebels” (who oppose Assad’s government) are technically a friendly group for Nadia, there are so many rebel groups by the time of the novel’s action that no one knows who to trust.

The majority of the novel takes place in 2013 during Nadia’s escape. It is action-packed, describing Nadia and her companions’ movements from place to place—who and what they see along the way, what they eat, where they sleep, and how far they walk. There are also chapters that flashback to the time before the war, beginning at Nadia’s birthday in 2010, which also coincides with the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia. These flashbacks then move forward in time, providing glimpses of how life changed as the war began in Syria and the situation deteriorated.

Something this book does wonderfully is discuss issues like religious difference, Assad’s authoritarian regime, and colonialism. For example, there is a balanced explanation of the Syrian Alawites, describing what they believe, how they were persecuted, and how that experience of persecution affected their own policies when Assad (an Alawite) came into power.  

There is a sense running throughout the book that this war came from the outside, that’s Syria’s people were living in multicultural and religious harmony until outsiders started fighting in a bid for power. They are outsiders in the sense that the original ISIS fighters were actually foreigners and also in the sense that they do not represent what Syrians want for their country.

 . . . and we Syrians die, caught between outsiders and Assad . . .

This book is hard-hitting. Nadia experiences real fear as she moves through the streets slowly, peeking around corners and proceeding cautiously. She fears several different groups all at once; everyone and anyone could be dangerous.

Something that I felt could have been improved in this novel was the pacing during the escape and the balance between the past and present. I felt like the present-day escape scenes were dragging on, and I would have appreciated more of Nadia in the past. We don’t know very much about Nadia except that she really likes music and was injured in the leg. I would have preferred more of a balance here. Even something as simple as seeing her with a friend pre-conflict and then wondering about that friend later would have made a big difference.

I highly recommend this book for all middle grade readers. It puts a face to one of the many conflicts going on on the other side of the world. This book is also tame enough that I’m interested in reading it to my six- and eight-year-old. I think this story will be accessible for them and a good way for them to learn about the conflict through a guided reading experience. 

Escape from Aleppo is published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (2018) and you can get a copy here.

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