Thunderbird is the first book of a series of children’s novels following the adventures of Noor, a Palestinian girl with special powers. This was a difficult book to assess; I do not read a lot of children’s literature and am unfamiliar with the conventions of that category of novel. In some respects, I found the book to be engaging, a compelling read with evocative passages. I struggled with reconciling this with the plot, which I found very predictable. And yet, there really is no book quite like this one in Palestinian speculative fiction.
Let’s get into the highlights. Intergenerational norms and how they’ve changed also get taken up when the grandmother—who was married at thirteen—shows her granddaughter the hollow in an olive tree. It was not just a favourite spot, but also where she would hide from her mother-in-law.
Noor, orphaned and hated by the aunt and cousin with whom she lives, has few moments of reprieve and empowerment before the whirlwind of fate takes her on an adventure to solve a series of mysteries about herself and the power she has inherited. One of these is to discover that the very thing she is hated for—mysterious fires that erupt when she is upset—is her gift to command:
“Aha! It’s burning, it’s really burning!” she shouted, turning in circles. “It’s burning, I’m the greatest witch in the world, I can make things catch fire, by the will of the Great Witch, the Great Witch of Ramallah, the First Witch of Palestine!”
She repeated the experiment. This time, the pile of grass didn’t take nearly as long to catch fire. She tood and raised a hand, as though she were wielding a sword, and said with a dramatic gesture:
“Where are you, my enemies? Come on and face me! I’m right here, you cowards!”
My favourite moments were when Noor touches on topics that resonated with me, as a Palestinian of the generations post-Nakba: the seeming impossibility of return, or of travel within or to Palestine. When the mystery leads to the conclusion that she must do the impossible—she must travel through time—she baulks first at another impossibility: that of going to Jerusalem from nearby Ramallah in the West Bank.
“Jerusalem? But how? You know I can’t go to Jerusalem! There’s an Israeli checkpoint between here and there. And how am I supposed to get through the Qalandia checkpoint without a pass?”
The book reads like an extended fairy tale in more ways than one. In particular, archetypes feature prominently in the plot. The people in Noor’s life and that enter into her story feel more like fairy tale archetypal energies than as people. We open with a scene of divination: Noor’s grandmother performs a ceremony using coffee grounds to foretell the future. The supernatural gift of her grandmother’s sight is a subtle anticipation of Noor’s own magic. Helpers appear with a supernatural regularity, and sometimes with supernatural natures too. Sometimes, it’s a university professor who happens to believe in Noor and her incredible story. These allies appear just when they are needed, and supply exactly the item, factoid, or solution needed to overcome any obstacle which Noor faces. When these fail, Noor can always turn to pyromancy.
As I mentioned above, the narrative doesn’t shirk from the realities of life under Israeli occupation. In the sequence where Noor’s quest is almost cut short at an Israeli checkpoint, she remarks to her companion that she “hates them” from the bottom of her heart. Her freedom from the checkpoint is silently bought with the freedom of several Palestinian men who were bystanders arrested by the Israelis “to prove to themselves that they’re still in control” when challenged by Noor’s pyromancy.
The target audience for this book is readers aged 10-13, slightly younger than Noor herself. I could see myself getting lost in the magic at that age, and what young reader wouldn’t enjoy a story with a talking cat in it? For adult me, I struggled with how predictable the throughline was for the plot and with how pat and quick solutions came to all of the obstacles in Noor’s quest.
That being said, there was one moment that resonated with me above others. When Noor goes back in time to 16th century Palestine, her companion—one of her helpers—relays the recent history of the city of Jerusalem, how it was fought over, and exchanged between Arab rulers from other lands and Crusaders. The whole thing disgusts Noor, who finally has enough and says:
“I don’t want to know anything more about history. Everything about it is painful.”
What more is there to say? The novel is an extended fairy tale, one that ends on a cliff hanger. By and large, the telling of folktales in Palestine and in the Palestinian diaspora has been combined with the telling of personal stories, family histories, of the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948, and the Occupation of 1967, the Nakba and Naksa. These are heavy, painful histories tinged with beauty and resilience. Instead of magical palaces, there are homes on hills with gardens and farms. The treasures are human dignity and inalienable rights.
And, it’s true, everything about these stories and about our history is painful. When Noor speaks to this desire to just stop listening, it is painful but also validating. She recognizes that, as it is said, Palestine is an open wound.
I have to be honest: I’ve struggled with how to wrap up this review. This is an important work, a star in the constellation of Palestinian speculative fiction. I was not its ideal reader, for all that I appreciate what it does well. This is very much a book for someone who appreciates a straight path from plot point to plot point.
I feel that I have gleaned some knowledge about the heritage of Palestinians, and the emotional thrust of what it means to be an occupied people, to pass through a checkpoint. And I’m sure there are interesting set ups thematically with the Thunderbird, which is a phoenix, and the Palestinian martyrs; there is a reference to the bird self-immolating with “the silence of a martyr.” I also appreciated the engagement with life under Israeli occupation—the main character is a little girl from Ramallah, Palestine. There is a scene where her family discuss a recent killing of Palestinians in Gaza: “seven martyrs all at once!” This connection between Palestinian martyrs and the phoenix is not fully developed in this volume, but I anticipate the flowering of this dynamic in the other books in the series.
I would not hesitate to pick up the other books, when they come out, despite my reservations. Thunderbird was interesting enough for this old reader that I could see past the simplicity and predictability of the plot. I will be ruminating on the role of place, history, of fire and passion in the senses both of suffering and strong emotion, for some time to come.