Football, Twelve-Year-Old Boys, and Military Curfews: Elizabeth Laird’s “A Little Piece of Ground”

Most twelve-year-old boys in the United States spend their days thinking about video games, sports, school work, and maybe that cute girl in homeroom. If their father is a store owner, chances are they have no other concerns, since money is not a problem. In Elizabeth Laird’s novel A Little Piece of Ground (Haymarket Books, 2006), the twelve-year-old boys that serve as the story’s protagonists also spend a lot of their time on the aforementioned concerns. However, they also live in Palestine under occupation. This fact alone makes their concerns considerably different than boys in the US and other western countries. Whether they want to or not, Karim, Jodi and Hopper have to live with the knowledge that the soldiers who affect every aspect of their public lives consider them the enemy.

The story begins with Karim dreaming about being a superstar soccer player and also being shed of the annoyances of his younger sister and older brother. The reader meets his family and best friend, the pampered and pleasant Jodi. Meanwhile, the Israeli Defense Forces are enforcing a curfew with tanks and bullets. His school is destroyed and, as he wanders the town during the few hours Palestinians are allowed out of their houses, Karim meets Hopper, a mischievous school mate whose family recently moved out of the refugee camp. After discovering the school soccer field is no longer usable thanks to the Israeli military action, Hopper leads Karim to a vacant lot near the camps — where Karim is forbidden to go. The two began to kick the ball around and, after it bounces awkwardly away from them a couple times, they decide to turn the lot into a soccer field and begin to clear away the stones.

Now, there are places in the US where boys this age are met with suspicion by the authorities and even threatened by their presence. However, there is no place yet that I know of where twelve-year-olds are considered fair game to be shot and arrested besides Palestine, Iraq and perhaps a few other locales. This may seem like old news to the adult reader, but even they can not help but be affected by the emotionally powerful story of Karim’s realization of this truth. In addition, only the reader of the same mindset of the most hardened Israeli expansionist or without a heart would cheer the demeaning and deadly actions of Tel Aviv’s military forces as they destroy lives and dreams in the city of Ramallah where most of the story takes place.

The title A Little Piece of Ground is about more than the makeshift soccer field the boys create. It’s a metaphor for the plight of the Palestinians and millions of other people around the earth. These are the people who have no place to call their own, thanks to the greed and fears of those who control not only the land the landless live on, but their daily lives, as well. As the boys build their soccer field, study, and try to avoid the harsh reality around them, they also face issues of class as Karim and Jodi begin to understand the lives of their countrymen living in the refugee camps.

Whether they know it or not, most US residents are not provided with a view of Palestinians and Arabs that emphasizes their humanity. Because of this, the general perception of the Palestinian people does not include the fact that they are, generally speaking, a family-centered society that emphasizes what politicians in the US call “family values.” It is this aspect of Laird’s tale that recommends this book to adults, as well as teenagers. As has been said before, if most Americans knew the circumstances of the Israeli occupation, they would not support it. Nor would they support their tax dollars going towards a project that depends on the daily humiliation and destruction of a people, their land and culture. If they knew that their tax dollars were being used not only to dehumanize the people under occupation, but also the soldiers involved in the carrying out the acts of humiliation and murder, they would demand a change in Washington’s policies in the Middle East. It is because this knowledge would precipitate such a change that it is repressed. Perhaps fiction is a better means of making these facts known. Ms. Laird certainly gives it her best in A Little Piece of Ground.

This book is an odyssey about youth becoming aware of injustice and domination. Anybody who can remember the first glimmerings of political awareness will appreciate the finely styled story Laird tells in these pages as she relates the emotions and reactions of the three boys personal and political growth. Any young person who reads this might well wish their lives were as exciting as those told in this book. Then again, maybe they’ll look around and discover that there is something they can do — about the situation of the Palestinians or someone even closer to their home. If I were a middle or high school teacher, I would definitely place this book on my students’ reading list. Of course, the censors might not agree.

Ron Jacobs is an avid reader. He is also the author of A History of the Weather Underground. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, should be out in early 2007. This review was originally published by and is reprinted with permission.

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