Review: Solheim’s first fiction novel, “Ali’s Bees” debuts in paperback

History professor Bruce Solheim poses with his fiction novella "Ali's Bees" on Sept. 7 in his office in the CI Building. Solheim has written many other historically influenced books, including his students' textbook. Photo courtesy of Daniel Escamilla

“Ali’s Bees” is the debut work of fiction by Citrus College history professor Bruce Solheim. The story follows a year in the life of orphaned Iraqi refugee and elementary school student, Ali Salam. He has moved to Los Angeles with his beekeeping grandfather after his parents were killed in the Iraq War.

Ali is a contemplative sweetheart, unmoved by bullying. His grandfather, Mohammad Salam, is a benevolent Shi’a sage that dispenses charming platitudes whenever Ali is overwhelmed by cruelty, depression or PTSD.

The best feature of the book is the quick pace at which it reads. Solheim shows his talent for navigating heavy themes in a children’s book with a catchy storyline.

The grandpa, who is referred to as “the old man” and Salam, delivers the novella’s most salient messages about the power of learning and human solidarity.

Solheim said writing the book was influenced by his love of E.B White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” White’s book, a cornerstone of children’s literature, uses personification and metaphor to communicate themes of equality, friendship and the dignity of life.

In “Charlotte’s Web,” the child Fern admonishes her father in defense of the piglet runt. “If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?” From the mouths of babes, White reveals social hypocrisy in the treatment of animals.

Solheim said he imitated the device.

“Except in my book the animals don’t talk,” he said.

The morals of “Ali’s Bees” come first through dialogue from grandpa Salam, transmitted through Ali, another child with immigration trouble, Lupe and finally by the narrator himself.

Narration delivers a few of the novella’s serious prescriptions. The effect is to repeatedly pull the reader into guessing at the mind of the author, rather than experiencing the warm world he has created.

The endearing and prolific history writer, Solheim’s politics are hard to distill from those of his characters. Solheim may know better whether an adolescent Iraqi refugee would say, “The insurgents came and tried to recruit children,” but it sounds more like his research than a boy’s confession. Nor should we believe Lupe she when rips from the day’s headlines, “ICE officers come to our house.”

Current events infuse savory factoids that hasten the read. “I became fascinated the problem of colony collapse disorder,” Solheim said, referring to his inspiration. The mysterious ecological problem has devastated the world’s bee population.

Solheim said he wanted a children’s book that would get young readers interested in issues affecting the natural world.

The book’s interesting science is muddled in its confused politics and ethics. The reader is told as always, that extremists don’t wear the true face of Islam.

Islam unlike the Catholic faith for instance, has many competing figureheads.  Every province of Iraq has its own Imams with devoted and well-armed posses. Attendees to their mosques are just as devout as any other.

Solheim’s Mohammad of peace can no more claim to be the ambassador to the faith than can “Jihadi-John.”

Mohammad Salam believes less in the righteousness of his faith than in an inclusive human piety. His is a universal faith Salam hallucinates is echoed in the bees’ buzz.

No country in recent memory has suffered more from lunatic spirituality than Iraq. Solidarity does not come as manna from the skies, but through recognition of a common humanity. Iraqis don’t need to eradicate a scourge of secularism, but delusional and militant mullahs.

On this point “Ali’s Bees” contradicts itself. On page 82, Salam states, “War is the bankruptcy of ideas.” On 85, the character explains, “Jihad is both an internal and external struggle. Internally we fight against selfish desires… Externally, we may fight against enemies that threaten the innocent…”

Returning U.S. veterans, like the book’s Morgan Hooper, did not participate in a holy struggle, thank goodness. Jihad in all its forms is to be suspected for its deference to the unknowable, and its denial of human reality.

“Ali’s Bees” features charming illustrations from a former Citrus student of Solheim, Gabby Untermayerova.

The story also uses gorgeous Koranic recitations by the loquacious Salam. The quotes are refreshing in a western children’s book. Solheim’s characters use their cultural experience to respond bravely to social obstacles.

The book is a noble attempt to paint a hopeful future for an American empire in perpetual crisis. A vision of innate social harmony ignores the dangers of sectarianism and is bound to remain illusory. To grow up we must abandon our youthful delusions.

The children of “Ali’s Bees” say the things we were too afraid to when we were young.  They personify the complicated hopes for a harmonious world society or as Ali says, “We can all learn from the honeybees.”

Solheim and Untermayerova will be signing books at a discounted price at noon, Sept. 24, at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. The list price for “Ali’s Bees” is $9.89.

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