Babo is a leftover child. In her unnamed war-torn country — unnamed on purpose, to give her a sense of universality, which I found both interesting and disconcerting; I wanted something more concrete as a reader, but I can understand the desire to make her situation less specific — she lives with other orphaned children in an abandoned circus camp. It’s not an easy life; there’s not much food, and there’s always the danger of soldiers and bombs. And yet, she’s happy. She tells stories to the other children; she pretends that her parents will come back and get her. She’s content with her lot.
And then, one day, an American couple come to the camp and want to adopt Babo. Although she tries desperately to get them to change their minds, the next thing she knows her name is Betti and she is on a plane (with her friend and fellow leftover child, George) to America. Once there, readers follow her struggles to, and against, adjusting to her new life.
It’s a heartbreaking story, for many reasons. It’s because the American family is just trying to do what they feel is right, and it’s not quite working with Betti. It’s heartbreaking because the fighting in Babo’s country is what led to this situation. That said, Babo/Betti is a fighter and a survivor, and she feels guilty about having comforts when her friends are still stuck with a lousy life. She’s been struggling her whole life, and she’s afraid about what it might do to her. In a couple of very telling scenes — it’s one of the best books I’ve read lately that shows rather than tells — you get the sense of Babo/Betti’s desperation and fear. Her adoptive parents are omplex as well; on the one hand, they’re overly generous and kind of clueless Americans, but there’s a real love for lost souls, and a genuine concern for Babo/Betti’s well-being.
Possibly the best thing about this book is that Railsback doesn’t paint everything in black and white, even though Babo/Betti tries to make things that way, and as a result, the book is a complex, and yet accessible, look at war, refugees and adoption.