Sunday, August 22, 2010

Freshly-Brewed Monday Book Recommendation- Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth

"Stay here, starve here," Gopal's father sums up the family's reality in a few small words. Eleven year-old Gopal lives in rural India where his family's survival is deeply tied to their land. As is typical in most third world countries, a bad crop, a family illness or any number of small turns could force a family away from their life in the country, toward a life in the city where job opportunity hopefully awaits. Gopal’s father (Baba) decides to move the family to Mumbai where they can be helped by relatives and Baba can find work. The first half of the book walks through many tenuous situations in the family's travels to find Gopal’s Uncle Jama. These situations allow the reader to see the beauty and goodness of people in India and the love Gopal's family has for one another. The second half of the book follows through on what is described on the back cover, life in a sweatshop. I was grateful for the time the author spent grounding me in Gopal's family life and his sense of self, investing me all the more in my desire to see him escape the conditions and dangers of his life locked up in a  sweatshop building where he is forced to work all day with no pay and little food.

In the sweatshop, Gopal meets the other child laborers who do not give their names. Throughout the story they are known as: Dimple Chin, Gray Cloud (GC), Rocking Boy, Night Chatterer and Thick Fingers. The names breathed life and new dimension into these characters, much like Stanley's imprisoned buddies in Holes by Louis Sachar. Gopal's relationships with the wounded boys build slowly and tentatively and created what was my favorite part of the book. Over time, Gopal realizes he has a gift the other boys have not been given, years of love from his family and the confidence and sense of self that provides. Slowly, the author develops Gopal's realization that he must use his strong foundation of love and security provided by his upbringing to engender the trust of these wary boys. Only then can they can create a connection that will allow them to do more than merely survive within the walls of the building- create a plan to escape!

Gopal quickly realizes storytelling is his best means to forge a bond with the other laborers. The theme of storytelling is central to this book. First, Gopal uses storytelling to entertain himself and his younger siblings in their life in the Indian countryside. Then Gopal turns to storytelling as a way to insert hope into the desperation of his family's life as they travel through India and lose Baba. Finally, Gopal uses story as a way to connect with the other boys within the walls of their sweatshop. Evenings of story-telling became the highlight of the boys evenings together on their bunks and ultimately is what bonded them.

Gopal's stories are sweet and endearing. I loved the slow build of hope he infused into the lives of the boys who had not known joy inside or outside the walls of their sweatshop.

The abuse the boys suffered included beatings, ladders taken away in the night so they could not use the bathroom, and being forced to hold their ankles for hours. It didn't get much worse than that. It felt authentic in its depiction of the types of evils that a child might endure in this environment, although I am sure Sheth only provided the milder forms of abuse, so that this could be palatable for a middle grade reader. In the acknowledgments in the back of the book, the author discussed that the basis for many of the characters and situations were founded on experiences she had while traveling in India doing extensive research on this subject matter.

Jacqueline Woodson's blurb on the cover of the book sums up my feelings about this book, I will let her say it for me! "Boys Without Names is not a heartbreaking story, even if there are moments that break the heart. Instead, it is a story about growing up, about learning and relearning the meaning of family. This is one of the best books I've read this year."

There were definitely moments that broke my heart. It is beyond difficult hearing any detail of abuse inflicted on children. Sheth does a beautiful job providing enough to create an authentic story, and yet not too much so as to take the book out of the middle-grade range of appropriate subject matter and detail.

This book would be great for male or female middle grade readers, either to read on their own or as a class read aloud. I can imagine the class discussions would be rich with "aha" moments for children who may not appreciate the comfort and ease with which they go about their days. I will be eagerly awaiting any future work by Kashmira Sheth. I am now a huge fan.