The NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by NCRCL students and published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions.
Review of Lost Riders by Elizabeth Laird
by Karen Williams
Having recently moved to Dubai, I felt I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to review a children’s book that tackles some of the issues and complexities that exist in this now famous Emirate. Elizabeth Laird’s 2010 book, Lost Riders tells the emotional story of Rashid and his brother, Shari, two young Pakistani boys trafficked from their home country into a life of danger and abuse working as camel jockeys in the Gulf state. It is based on the real-life testimony of boys eventually repatriated to Pakistan after the UAE outlawed the use of child camel riders in 2002. The result of Laird’s meticulous research is an emotional and hard-hitting story of abuse, exploitation and survival.
The third person narrative is focalised through the figure of Rashid, a young boy of around seven years old. Laird uses his viewpoint to gradually awaken in the reader an understanding of how the boys’ family are duped into sending the children to Dubai with promises of a better life for them all. As Rashid and Shari journey to the Gulf with their Uncle Bilal, it quickly becomes clear that promises of toy cars, or comfortable lives in large houses are false, and instead the brothers are taken to separate uzbas – or camel farms – way out in the desert, and their life of exploitation begins.
In this novel, Laird does not shy away from the terrible reality of the abuse and dangers suffered by these young children on the camel farms. The reader is directly privy to Rashid being beaten by the ‘Masoul’ (head) of the uzba and again by Abu Nazir the camel trainer. All the children are starved to keep their weight down and made to exercise the camels for hours at a time as well as negotiate the dangers of the camel races. Laird however, projects the worst of the violence and abuse onto characters outside of Rashid’s direct view: the figure of Mujib who Rashid replaces in the uzba and who has been killed in a fall from a camel, is an ever-present spectre in the minds of all the children. Amal too, who has broken his arm in a fall at the racetrack, is used to hint at the lasting psychological as well as physical damage suffered by the children. However it is through the mistreatment of Shari that Laird shows the worst abuse. Close to death after a fall, it is only through the intervention of the spirited Rashid himself, and the kindness of the owner of Rashid’s uzba, that Shari is saved. Laird’s revelation of these experiences through Rashid or through insinuation in the narrative, allows the author to tread a successful line between revealing the true extent of the abuse suffered by these boys whilst allowing her principal character some leeway to become more than a victim of exploitation. Rashid is a fully rounded character whose success at riding the camels allows for some reprieve from his desperate situation, but who is always aware that he, like his brother and the other boys, is only ever one beating or one fall away from serious injury or death.
However, Laird’s novel is not just about the children she portrays in the novel. A careful reading of the text also reveals the ultimate underpinning of child trafficking by a complex interplay of relationships that extend well beyond the borders of the UAE. Her characters are often drawn to raise larger questions about issues such as poverty, morality and criminality that cross into grey areas that have no simple resolution. The head of Rashid’s uzba, for example, is an ambiguous figure, making a better life for his own children in Pakistan from his involvement in camel racing but also complicit in the abuse of the boys. Likewise, some of the parents of the juvenile riders are desperate for their children to return, whilst others are shown by Laird to be willing participants in this trade of children: Iqbal’s father, for example has been “trafficking children too” (270). Driven by poverty, driven by greed, lacking humanity, showing compassion, by writing such complexity into her characters, Laird produces an absorbing and thought-provoking read whilst balancing the relative optimism of Rashid and Shari’s repatriation with a wider plea to finally eradicate the continuing world-wide trade in children.
 Laird, in fact, dedicates this book to: “the increasing numbers of children throughout the world who are trafficked away from their homes and families to work in far countries, including the UK, in many forms of slavery” (Introduction to Lost Riders).
About the Reviewer:
Name: Karen Williams
Research area: Humour in early nineteenth-century children’s literature
Path to Roehampton in 140 characters: Undergrad in Eng. Lit at Oxford then many years working in marketing before returning to my first love through MA and PhD in Children’s Lit at Roehampton….
Favourite re-read: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse – I always take out something new when I re-read this verse novel.
Unsung Picture Book: The ‘Mungo’ books by Timothy Knapman and Adam Stower – brilliant fun for children and adults alike
Unsung Young Adult Novel: Feed by M.T. Anderson – seems scarily prophetic to me!
– Series edited by Erica Gillingham.