Bone Talk, by Candy Gourlay

Bone Talk, by Candy Courlay (middle grade, David Fickling Books, November 5 2019 in the US), is set in the mountains of the Philippines in 1899.  Samkad is ten, on the verge of become officially recognized as a man, and taking his place as a warrior of the Bontoc people, fighting their enemy, another mountain people,  on and off as they have for generations.  His best friend Luki also wants to be a warrior, but she's a girl, and that's not the role awaiting her.   The ancestors are close at hand, giving guidance and protection, the rice grows well, and the world seems to be working as it should.

Then the world changes.  An American arrives, with a boy originally from Samkad's village, who grew up in the lowlands.  The man is friendly, sharing knowledge of his strange country and its customs.   But other Americans have come to the Philippines too, bringing war, and they too come to the village.   They are not friends, and Samkad's passage from childhood to adulthood is the trauma he and his father must face together in the wake of the American war.

I did not know anything about the Philippine-American War before reading this book, though the general trajectory of violent invasion and clash of cultures didn't surprise me.  But the story isn't about the invasion so much as it is about Samkad's growing up, and coping with the dramatic disruption of his world.  He's a great, believable kid, anxious to prove himself, making impulsive decisions that sometimes aren't great, and ultimately come through everything true to himself.  There's enough about the war and the Americans to make things exciting, without that story decentering Samkad and his perspective as things fall apart around him.

The sights and sounds and even smells of Samkad's world are well described, making this place and its people vividly real, which in turn makes the story of invasion and cultural disruption even more powerful.  The story ends gently, with the horror softened by a reprieve for Samkad and the Bontoc people, and indeed, after finishing the book, I was relieved to find that the Bontoc are still living in their mountains (see link above).

So the book is two things--an excellent, and universally familiar story of growing up, and a great introduction to a culture very foreign to many US readers, and to the horror of "culture contact" and imperialism for young readers!  And it is, in fact, endorsed by Amnesty International:

"Amnesty International endorses Bone Talk because it upholds many human rights, including our rights to life, to equality, to have a religion, to enjoy our own culture. It also shows us what can happen when these are taken away from us."

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.


  1. I didn't know anything about a Philippine-American War until I read this post. This sounds like a terrific book. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. Oh wow, this sounds terrific. I didn't learn about this war until late high school, and then only because I had a pretty good AP American history textbook. It's definitely not covered the way it should be! I'm adding this to my list for sure.


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