Review: The Merit Birds by Kelley Powell

The Merit Birds by Kelley PowellThe Merit Birds
Kelley Powell
Dundurn Press

Furious. That’s how Cameron feels about leaving Canada during his senior year and missing his star spot on the basketball team. That’s how he feels about his dad being gone. And how he feels about living in Laos for a year with his mom.

Then Cam meets Somchai, who turns out to be a better friend than all of his friends at home combined. He meets Nok, the shy massage therapist who teaches him about doing good deeds for others. He begins to fall in love. With her gentle smile. With the slow, peaceful rhythm of life in Laos.

Nok’s brother Seng longs to do something useful. To save his sister from the knife’s edge of poverty. To go to America. But before he can follow through with his dreams, tragedy turns his world upside down.

Tragedy visits Cam, too. He is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Justice moves slowly in Laos. Terrified, Cam waits in prison for the real perpetrator to come forward. Like so many of us, in the worst of circumstances, Cam finally begins to understand the selfless gift of friendship he’s been offered in Laos. He can only hope it’s not too late to return that gift.

I really enjoyed the setting and culture details. Laos is a country about which I know very little, so it was really cool to not only read about it as a setting, but experience some of the culture and traditions through the intriguing cast of characters. The theme about misled Western characters finding being saved by the superior Eastern ways is perhaps a little overdone. Powell balances it well by showing some of the issues within the government and in revealing the flaws in the Lao characters as well. The ending was a little abrupt. It’s almost a montage of wrap-up scenes, which made it very sharp, but very brief and left me feeling like I missed part of the conclusion. Is Cam really different now that he’s out of prison? What does Cam say to Somchai, now that he’s undergone this in-prison transformation? Does he meet Nok’s other family members? Does his mom rush him back to Canada?

Part of the beauty in a story can be its unanswered questions. I definitely wanted more from this one. Overall I really enjoyed it.

Language Content
Extreme profanity used infrequently.

Sexual Content
Cam briefly mentions having had sex with a girl at a party. No details beyond that.

Spiritual Content
Nok teaches Cam about merit birds. One buys caged birds from a vendor and then releases them to build up karma.

A rival basketball player says some unkind things to Cam and he explodes, punching the boy repeatedly in the face. A massage customer attacks Nok and attempts to rape her. She fights him off, but is shaken up by the experience. Police beat witnesses in attempts to coerce testimony.

Drug Content
Seng drinks alcohol at a party and then causes a fatal accident. Cam references drinking at parties in Canada. He and his mother sip alcohol at a party the neighbors throw for them. Cam gets drunk in a tourist town nearby and later regrets his behavior.

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About Kasey

Reads things. Writes things. Fluent in sarcasm. Willful optimist. Cat companion, chocolate connoisseur, coffee drinker. There are some who call me Mom.

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