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The Flame Tree

I got this book in the mail by someone who reads my site. I didn’t know anything about it except that it was as story of a teenaged boy and it tackled some tricky issues about faith and religion in these confusing times. The book is a bit more intense than that. It tracks an American boy who lives with his parents at the Christian missionary hospital they live and work at in Indonesia. The hospital is controversial in the town because local Muslims believe that the health care they offer is just a bribe to encourage people to accept Christ and convert to Christianity. The boy Isaac is not too wrapped up in religious issues except that he knows that when a local fundamentalist starts rising to power he can no longer hang out with his Muslim friend from town. Things go from bad to worse when the World Trade Center is attacked in the US and the climate in the town goes from grudging acceptance to outright hostility. The medical personnel are airlifted out of town except for Issac’s parents who decide to stay behind and Isaac who evacuates a crashing helicopter while suffering from malaria. He is found and held captive by Muslims who try to teach convert him to Islam and, at one point, frustrated with his unwillingness to convert voluntarily, forcibly circumcise him. While the book is listed as a young adult novel and the first person narrator is twelve years old, the graphic violence and hatred [on both sides] make this book a difficult recommendation for teens.

A large part of Isaac’s captivity involves his former teacher from the hospital school teaching him the Quur’ran and how the teachings of Allah do not differ in many ways from the teachings of Christ. For someone with a background in either one of these religions there may have been more to glean from the conversations about the Quur’ran but to my uneducated eye, the general upshot was: Christians are annoying prostyletizers and so are Muslims. While the Muslims are seen in this book as having more of the “bad apple” elements who step over the guidelines of their religion in order to wreak vengeance or retributions, the Christians are also seen as somewhat naive and oppressive in their attempts to convert the local people who already have their own religion that they are quite happy with. There are good and bad people on both sides of the equation and while Isaac does eventually get reunited with his parents and learns to forgive his captors the story does not end on a particularly happy note indicating that there is still much work to be done in support for Christian/Muslim tolerance and understanding.