Book Buzz: The Turtle of Oman

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye

When news headlines emphasize violence and strife, it can be comforting to engross oneself in a “gentle read,” and Naomi Shihab Nye’s delightful novel The Turtle of Oman fills the bill.

Although intended for a grade-school audience, it’s appropriate for adult readers, too, particularly those who enjoy learning about different countries and cultures. It recounts one week in the life of Aref Al-Amri, a young boy growing up in Oman, whose father has just left to attend the University of Michigan. Soon, Aref and his mother will join his father, but this week Aref must confront his anxiety about the move and say his goodbyes.

Aref is precocious, articulate and sensitive. His family is loving and supportive, and they understand his reluctance to pack his suitcase. Aref’s grandfather, Sidi, arrives to take him on some last adventures before his departure, and the two set forth into the desert.

Clearly, his grandfather’s plan is to take his mind off his worries, and create some memories together that Aref can cherish even when they’re far apart. The night sky resplendent with stars, waves lapping on the beach, and giant lumbering sea turtles are images Aref can hold onto forever.

Aref and Sidi go camping, fish in the Indian Ocean, and visit a turtle nesting ground. Aref keeps lists of facts about things that have meaning for him: stones, foxes, falcons and, of course, turtles. Ultimately, the turtles are a beautiful metaphor for home, as they take their shells with them wherever they travel, and they always return to the place they were born.

While Aref’s family are emigrating to a new country to pursue their PhDs, their story, and Aref’s feelings about leaving his home, are relatable to any child whose family is facing a move. It’s refreshing to find a novel that lacks overdone drama, and instead focuses on the quiet wisdom of the grandfather and the relationship he has with his grandson.

This novel is spare and poetic, no surprise as Nye is a celebrated poet with four Pushcart Prizes and numerous honors. Most recently, she was selected by the American Library Association to deliver the 2018 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture, “Refreshments Will Be Served: Our Lives of Reading & Writing”.

This year, Western Washington University and the Whatcom County Library System partnered on a successful application to host the prestigious Arbuthnot Lecture, which will take place at 7pm on Sat., April 28 at Western Washington University Performing Arts Center.

The Arbuthnot Lecture is free of charge and open to the public, but registration is requested. Sign up here to ensure you have a place to sit.

Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, March 14, 2018.)