Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book of the Week: SARASWATI'S WAY by Monika Schroder

Oh my goodness, Esteemed Reader. Through sheer dumb luck I have managed to land interviews with two of my favorite middle grade authors from my childhood. I’m not going to tell you their names (where’s the fun in that), but you would know them if I did because they've each been on the scene long enough to have written classic middle grade books and odds are pretty good you've read at least one of each of their works. I’m thrilled every time a writer is gracious enough to appear here, but it’s especially exciting when the author is one I've adored since I was the target audience for middle grade novels.

Monika Schroder is not a favorite author from my childhood. Saraswatti’s Way was only published last year, so she will have to settle for being a favorite author from my adulthood:) Her novel is amazing and not to be missed. Monika Schroder will be here Thursday to face the 7 Questions, which I’m also very excited about and you will be too when I tell you about her book. And none other than Jennifer Laughran will be our Saturday Literary Agent. All in all, it’s nothing but good times ahead of us, Esteemed Reader, and it all starts today.

At one point, Akash, the hero of Saraswati's Way, is asked what it's like to read by one of many illiterate boys he meets and he replies: “It’s like going to different places without leaving where you are." Esteemed Reader, I cannot think of a finer way to describe Saraswati’s Way to you. This book is a portal to another world not often seen in American fiction, the world of India through the eyes of a peasant child. It’s a world that will equally tantalize and haunt you.

Like many Americans, I’ll admit the Ninja is woefully ignorant of other cultures and my knowledge of India comes mostly from Slumdog Millionaire, Apu from The Simpsons, and Karl Pilkington’s journey to the Taj Mahal on An Idiot Abroad. I have Indian friends, but they've been Americanized. If you’re an American who is already very familiar with India and its culture, you’re still going to love Saraswati’s Way because at its heart it’s a great story well told. But for the ignorant, such as myself, it is fascinating to have this opportunity to learn more about Indian culture and social rules wrapped around a compelling story.

From a craft perspective, Saraswatti’s Way is a great example about how to write about setting and how the choice of setting informs every aspect of the story. If you’re a science fiction writer describing other worlds, or a small town Indiana boy like me writing about small town Indiana, Monika Shroder is a wonderful world builder and her work is worth studying. 

See how she delivers exposition about culture we need to know to understand the story without ever interrupting the story. To even understand the title, you need to know that Saraswatti is the Indian goddess of knowledge and to know the importance of religion in Indian culture.To better illustrate, here is what Akash's father tells him early in the story:

“Son, you are just as willful as your mother. She always wanted to change things for the better. She argued even with your Dadima.” Bapu shook his head slowly. “Nothing changes because of our doing. It’s all in the hands of the gods.”

And that is what twelve-year-old Akash is up against: a stubborn belief by everyone around him that “that’s just the way it is; some things will never cha-a-a-ange.” Akash is a member of a poor farming family and it is his destiny to receive the minimum amount of education and then to become a poor farmer amassing debt he can never pay off. 

But Akash dreams of being able to go to a proper school and to get a proper education and to rise out of the poverty he was born into. If he can only get the money for a tutor, he can study and perhaps earn a scholarship. His family, however, has no intention of wasting good money on knowledge because as his grandmother most colorfully puts it: 

"Why teach a bucket to sing? He doesn't need to go to school past seventh standard.”

I can’t decide whether I should compare Saraswati’s Way to a fairy tale or to the work of Charles Dickens. Both would be apt comparisons and it won’t surprise me one bit to see Saraswati’s Way become a new middle grade classic as word of mouth spreads about what a fantastic book this is. I would personally like to put a copy in the hands of every American child attending school and eating three meals a day because, perhaps the Ninja is getting old, but these kids today don’t know how lucky they are. Reading about Akash’s predicament may remind them.

Every August a fever comes to Akash’s village after the wet season and people die—I can’t even imagine living in a place like that. At the start of the book, the fever claims Akash’s father, who is moved to the ground to be in contact with the earth when he dies. I’m not sure what the significance of this is as it was not touched on in Karl Pilkington’s journey, but it’s one of the many fascinating tidbits about Indian culture I picked up reading this book. 

His father dead, Akash’s fate is in his grandmother’s hands. His death combined with a poor crop leaves the family in a terrible bind and they will soon lose their home if they cannot pay off their rent debt. Thus, Akash’s grandmother sends him to work in a child labor camp.

Akash is good with numbers and he soon figures out that at the interest rate his family is being charged, he will never pay off the debt. He will forever be a slave without an education. So Akash hops a train and sets out on his own on an adventure through India. 

There is never a point in the story when Akash is not in conflict. He is a strong protagonist with a sympathetic goal beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish, and the tyranny of evil men (and yes, I did just drop that Pulp Fiction reference in a blog about children’s literature). This is the stuff of great storytelling.

I’m not sure if there is such a thing as edgy middle grade, but if there is, last week’s The Underneath is edgy, and Saraswati’s Way certainly is. Personally, I've come to resent the term “children’s fiction” and would like to see it referred to as family fiction. We have family films. The main characters in ET: The Extra Terrestrial are children, and yet that is a “family film” loved by children and adults alike. I have no doubt that Saraswati’s Way will be loved by children, but Schroder clearly intends for it to be read by adults as well, which would explain the inclusion of this scene:

It was tempting to go with the only person he knew in Delhi. Akash had no clear idea what he would do when he arrived at the train station. But Lal Singh stared at him the way a cat looked before it pounced on a mouse. Akash could feel Lal Singh’s damp hand on the small of his back, slowly moving closer toward his buttocks.

Children may likely read right over this scene without picking up on Lal Singh’s sinister motives for inviting Akash to stay with him, but adults won’t. So why include it if not for adult readers? What mother could read this story and not have fear for twelve-year-old Akash alone on the streets of India tripled? 

They have nasty, awful folks in India just like they do here and a child alone is a child who may be approached by predators. And India doesn’t even have Chris Hansen and the crew of To Catch a Predator. The inclusion of Lal Singh is dealt with quickly and the story moves on, which is good, because even when handsome Chris Hansen is hosting, this stuff is nothing to dwell on and not what Saraswati’s Way is about. Lal Singh is simply another point of conflict emphasizing how alone Akash is on his journey.

Lal Singh is also, sigh, realistic. It’s not a pretty world out there, Esteemed Reader, and it’s no place for a child to have to survive on his own. But children do it here and in even greater numbers in parts of India. Akash isn't going to tour a chocolate factory. His story is meant to be real and to invoke reader sympathy for him and the other kids in India in situations similar to or worse than his. I

’m not going to spoil the whole book for you, but Akash later gets involved with drug dealers and other nasty characters. Here is a particularly poignant scene that haunts me and I think will give you a nice preview of what to expect in the darker parts of Saraswati’s Way (remember, all of these characters are children):

“What are they doing? Akash asked. He noticed a sharp smell, like gasoline.
“They are sniffing,” Rohit answered.
“Sniffing what?”
“E-Raze! Cor-rec-tion fluid,” Deepak answered, his voice slurred. “Even cheaper than glue. Same effect. Ahhhh!” He had lowered the rag.
“You want some? I have glue.” Madhup offered Akash a small plastic bottle and his rag.
“No, thank you!” Akash turned to Rohit. “What does it do to them?”
“It makes them crazy,” he answered.
“No, it makes us happy and not hungry!” Deepak called.
“It lets us forget things,” Madhup added.
“After a while it ruins their brains. It is very dangerous,” Rohit said.

But I don’t want you to go saying, “Saraswati’s Way? Some blogger said it was depressing.” That’s not true. Saraswati’s Way is actually a hopeful and uplifting book. I’m really not going to spoil it, but just trust me. And as for the dark stuff… 

You remember the end of The Color Purple when Celi finally gets to hug Netti and her son and her daughter and even Sophia is happy and it’s just the happiest scene ever and the audience cries happy tears? That scene is happy directly in proportion to how unhappy the journey of Ceili is prior to it. And if you haven’t seen The Color Purple, go rent it.

I see we are clearly out of time, and yet I have one more passage to share with you. I’m going to keep harping on this idea for “family” books rather than “children’s” books for several posts to come, but there is no reason a story about children can’t include as much complexity as a story about adults. To prove it, here is a symbolic passage to serve as a metaphor for the children of India that even Nathanial Hawthorne would approve of:

The pigeons continued their fight close to the edge of the roof, each of them holding one end of the bread in its beak. One bird spread its wings, trying to lift the bread and fly, but the second pigeon ripped the chapatti apart with a sudden jerk, causing both of them to lose the bread. The pieces fell to the courtyard below.

And that’s it for another week, Esteemed Reader. Come back on Thursday to see Monika Schroder face the 7 Questions and on Saturday to see Jennifer Laughran do the same. And definitely come back next week as I've got the first of two big surprises planned for you. And now, as always, I will leave you with some of my favorite passages from Saraswati’s Way:

Wanting was just another kind of hunger, burning until satisfied.

Their bare branches ended in thick knobs held upward like the fists of angry men.

Pain flooded Akash like blood soaking a cloth.

The throw of her sari covered Aunt Kamla’s face, but her words shot through the fabric like a camel’s spit.

Heavy from exhaustion, he slowly curled up like a cashew.

The color and consistency of the man’s skin reminded Akash of potatoes.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing. I love India. I met my husband there over 20 years ago. This sounds like a grat book.


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