We Are All That's Left
We Are All That's Left

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Annotation: In this story told in two voices, Nadja, who grew up in war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s, refuses to discuss her youth with her daughter, Zara--until both are traumatized by a terrorist attack in Rhode Island.
Genre: War stories
Catalog Number: #154958
Format: Perma-Bound Edition from Publisher's Hardcover
All Formats: Search
Publisher: Penguin
Copyright Date: 2018
Edition Date: 2018
Pages: 376 pages
Availability: Available
ISBN: Publisher: 0-399-17554-7 Perma-Bound: 0-7804-0408-4
ISBN 13: Publisher: 978-0-399-17554-1 Perma-Bound: 978-0-7804-0408-3
Dewey: Fic
LCCN: 2017040313
Dimensions: 21 cm.
Language: English
Reviewing Agencies: - Find Other Reviewed Titles
Kirkus Reviews
Publishers Weekly
Reading Level: 7.0
Interest Level: 9-12
Reading Counts!: reading level:4.4 / points:22.0 / quiz:Q73525
ZARA
Present Day

Rhode Island 

I wake up in the dark. The clock on my nightstand reads 3:15. That must mean in the morning. I move slowly because everything hurts. My tank sticks to my back like a wet towel. I wince as I free it from the dried blood, or maybe it's pus from the wounds on my back. When I sit up, my head spins. Whatever Dad left for me to take was powerful stuff. My throat is raw from throwing up.

I check my phone, and there's a text from Dad saying for me to call if I need to. I text him instead because it's so late and he may be sleeping.

A text immediately returns to me.

Glad you got some sleep. Sitting here with Mom. No change, but we are confident about her recovery. You feeling okay? Take one of the painkillers if it is too much, but make sure you eat something first.

No kidding, I say.

Rest easy. Be home soon. Love you.

I walk to my parents' room, quietly. The bed hasn't been made. Mom would never leave her room like this: half the covers on the floor, dirty clothes in a pile by the bed, drawers slightly open with their contents peeking out. In his hurry, Dad must have frantically packed a bag.

Something about the messy sheets, the way they stare at me, defying my mom's cleanliness, bothers me. I make the bed, even though every movement is accompanied by pain. I place all her little pillows in a row, exactly how she does it every morning. I also pick up the clothes and shut the drawers. I sit down on the bed and look around the room. Better.

The jewelry box on her dresser catches my eye. A couple of her necklaces are sticking out like someone was ruffling through it. Maybe Dad was searching for something. I can't imagine Mom leaving them that way. I get up and begin putting the pieces back inside. One of them is my favorite necklace of hers, a choker with black stones--the one she never lets me wear. I start to put it on, but I catch my reflection in the mirror. There are cuts and scrapes and a large bruise that's formed on my right temple. I lift the bandage.

That can't be my face.

I touch my skin lightly. My upper cheek is all swollen and red with a large gash. I must have done a face-plant while falling. Fuzzy images return to me, a severed leg, Benny coughing and looking up at me, Mom lying unconscious, a child crying . . . I push them away. I don't want to think about that right now.

I leave the mirror and open my parents' closet, step into Mom's side. All her clothes are neatly hung and organized. Her shoes all perfect in their racks. I don't know what I'm looking for exactly. Maybe something beyond the cleanliness and order. Something that might tell me who she is.

There are several boxes way up on the highest shelf of the closet. I grab a chair and stand on it. The pain in my shoulders and back is intense, but I struggle through and carefully pull one down. The first box is full of sweaters, clothes for the winter. I put it down and look through another one, moving slowly. This one has paperwork in it, some forms and bills. I open another, and there are tons of soaps and bath oils. It's a little hard to manage, and my back is killing me, but I shove that box aside and notice a small, pretty red one deep in the closet. There's a thread tied around a knob on the lid, so I unwind it and lift it off gently. I sit with the box on the bed.

A small brown bear lies on his back looking up at me. He's dirty and smells like ash. Underneath him are papers. Many sheets of lined paper like from a college-ruled notebook. The tabs have been picked off. They look like letters, I think, with a salutation at the top of the page Draga Mama, Dragi Benjamin, Dragi Marko, etc. and Mom's name at the bottom. I pull one out and try to read it, but it's in Bosnian. They all appear to be in Bosnian.

What I spy underneath the letters makes my breath catch. There are dozens of old photographs. My heart races, but I flip through them slowly, careful with the edges, studying the faces. In many of them the only person I recognize is my mom. They must be pictures of her family--of my grandparents and uncle. I've never seen these people before.

Mom is so young. Her hair is long, all one length and without bangs, not the layered look she has now. In one photo, she and her parents and brother are standing together on a bridge with what looks like a river underneath and a little town on both sides of the hills. Mom doesn't look happy to be there; I know her irritated face. I smile, seeing it already there when she was a teenager.
There's another photo with her and a boy sitting together. His arm is around her. I turn it over and read Nadja and Marko '92. Mom would have been about sixteen or seventeen. The guy she's with is really cute--medium-length dark, shaggy hair, that '90s grunge kind of style. He's got deep brown eyes. I wonder who he is.

Behind that is another photo of my mom; she looks about the same age as in the last one. The shot is of her standing in front of a large bridge. I think it's the same one from the family photo. There's a river to one side of her. On the bank is a single weeping willow just slightly out of focus. Her mouth is wide open in the middle of a laugh. Her hands are reaching toward the camera, like she's trying to tell the person who is taking the photo to stop. She's wearing a red scarf and beanie. She looks so happy. Nadja '92 Love Marko is scrawled on the back.

I feel like I've just discovered the greatest treasure, and it makes me both sad and angry. I hold the photo of a family I never knew. How could she keep them from us? Since I'll never meet them, I would have loved to at least know what my grandparents looked like. I stare at them. Mom looks like her dad, but she's the same height as her mom. Her mom is pretty, with brown hair swept up on top of her head. It looks like the photo was taken on a warm day. They're all in T-shirts and jeans. Mom's brother, my uncle, is making a goofy face, like he's purposely messing up the photo. It's totally something Benny would do.

I want to ask Mom about them, about where she grew up, about her life before the war. But now . . . what if I don't get the chance?

 
NADJA
1992

Bosnia

Outside, men and boys lined the middle of the small, narrow street. They were mostly neighbors, people Nadja had seen her whole life. Nadja's father and brother were sent to join the back of the line. Cries of "why?" ran up and down the street from the women forced to stay behind.

Nadja recognized one of the men in uniform as her former teacher and her father's colleague who taught a couple of doors down from him at the high school. She almost called out to him, but the look he gave her was one of complete loathing.

Hadn't they all gone swimming together last summer? Weren't there talks of doing that again? Something about him helping her with a recommendation letter for school in Sarajevo?

Wait, Nadja tried to say. What's happening? Why isn't anyone doing anything? But she could hardly open her mouth. Fear flooded her body, rooting it to the ground. Shame and fear. A fear so cold and sick that she trembled.

Nadja and her mother watched helplessly as the men and boys were led to a truck and told to get into the back.

"Be orderly about it! Hurry up!"

One of the men stepped out of line. "What right do you have to do this? What have I done? Where are you taking--"

A soldier knocked him down and hit him repeatedly in the head with the end of the rifle until the man lay still.

Nadja stared at the blood oozing out from the wound at the base of the man's skull. She could see bits of his brain exposed from the open flap of skin. There was wailing now from the women standing by. The soldiers started shouting, telling them to get back to their homes.

"Please," a woman begged, holding on to a boy. "Please. He is my only son."

The largest soldier with dirty long brown hair approached her and hit her across the face with his palm. She fell to the ground, but still held on to the leg of her son. The soldier aimed his gun and shot her in the head.

At the shot, Nadja felt her body go numb. It was like she was in a dream and everything had slowed down. She saw people moving and talking, but she couldn't hear them or understand what they were saying.

Somewhere a woman was dying in the road.

Somewhere the blood trickled in a pencil-thin line and dribbled into the grass border at the edge of the street.

Somewhere the cries became untranslatable moans.

Nadja closed her eyes and tried to wake up. This wasn't real. She was in a nightmare. Soon she would wake up and be in her room. She would wake up, and everything would be okay again.

Nadja opened her eyes and watched as the men and boys were loaded onto the bed of the truck. Her father and Benjamin stood in the back because there was no room to sit. Normally she'd be irritated at Benjamin's tears because he could be such a baby sometimes. But now he seemed so brave. She saw her friend Jusuf then, just a little to the left of them. He held his football. He was wearing pajamas and had the strangest expression on his face. He seemed to be looking at Nadja but not looking at her at the same time.

She wanted to call to her family. She wanted to tell Benjamin she loved him. Tell her father. But she couldn't speak. She couldn't cry out. She could only watch. Her father held up his free hand. He was telling her something. Wait. Wait, she thought. Wait! I need to hear what he's saying.

"Wait," she croaked out.

But the truck was already moving. Already taking her father and brother away from her.

"Wait!" she screamed.

The truck rounded the bend, traveling downhill toward the center of town slowly because of its load. She stood with all the others left behind and watched until she could no longer see them.

Excerpted from We Are All That's Left by Carrie Arcos
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Two lives. Two worlds apart. One deeply compelling story set in both Bosnia and the United States, spanning decades and generations, about the brutality of war and the trauma of everyday life after war, about hope and the ties that bind us together.

Zara and her mother, Nadja, have a strained relationship. Nadja just doesn't understand Zara's creative passion for, and self-expression through, photography. And Zara doesn't know how to reach beyond their differences and connect to a closed-off mother who refuses to speak about her past in Bosnia. But when a bomb explodes as they're shopping in their local farmers' market in Rhode Island, Zara is left with PTSD--and her mother is left in a coma. Without the opportunity to get to know her mother, Zara is left with questions--not just about her mother, but about faith, religion, history, and her own path forward.

As Zara tries to sort through her confusion, she meets Joseph, whose grandmother is also in the hospital, and whose exploration of religion and philosophy offer comfort and insight into Zara's own line of thinking.

Told in chapters that alternate between Zara's present-day Providence, RI, and Nadja's own childhood in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, We Are All That's Left shows the ways in which, no matter the time and place, struggle and tragedy can give way to connection, healing and love.

Praise for We Are All That's Left:

* "A multilayered view of tragedy and its repercussions." --Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

* "This complex, compelling story takes readers on a deep dive below the surface, exposing both the fragility of life and the redemptive bonds of love." --Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

"This important and timely novel is a painful, lovely exploration of mending a mother-daughter relationship." --Kirkus Reviews


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