Friday, June 10, 2011
Book Review: Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan
This book captivated me right away. The story telling is fast paced, and there is an urgent tension that propels the book forward from the first chapter to the very end.
The first few chapters of the book reminded me very much of Anya's War. The protagonist (Rosy) is part of a foreign community in Asia. In this case, she is part of the ruling British community during the time that the Indians start protesting for their freedom under the leadership of Gandhi. This is certainly a clear difference is station and background, since Anya was part of the Jewish community who had to flee their homes to China in order to live. But you can see the striking similarities.
Rosy isn't like the other British girls that she sees at school or at the British club. All they can talk about is fashion or how excited they are to finally get the latest things from England. Rosy couldn't care less about England. Sure, she calles it "home" the same as her parents, but she has spent every moment of her fifteen years in India, and she loves it. She grew up playing with her nurse's daughter, Isha, and they learned each other's languages, speaking to each other in a jumble of English and Hindi. Now that they are older, Isha shows Rosy all the wonders of the Indian bazaar--the beautiful trinkets, the blazing bolts of cloth, and the delicious aromas of heavily spiced food. She knows that her father disapproves of her associating with the Indians, but she can see nothing wrong with it. They were part of her country and her home.
One day, she meets an unorthodox British family. The other Brits respect this mother and son only because they are rich. But behind their backs, they gossip about how Mrs. Nelson looks after abandoned Indian babies in her orphanage and how the son has his own radical ideas supporting Gandhi and the "treasonous" cause of India's freedom.
When Rosy finds out that one of the lowest class servants (that her father had recently dismissed) had sold his baby to a cruel beggar, she knew she had to do something. She couldn't stand the thought of the heartless beggar maiming and twisting the baby's legs so that it would be crippled and have to beg for him. She took her one Christmas shilling down to the river to a very poor and dangerous part of the city to buy the baby from the beggar. She is able to care for it for only about a day before she is forced to take the baby to Mrs. Nelson's orphanage. Surly saving the baby was the right thing to do... and yet her father was so angry and worried. (This reminds me of Anya and her Chinese baby.) But of course, it's natural for a father to feel angry and worried that his 15-year-old daughter went alone at night into the most dangerous part of the city to buy and Indian baby from a beggar.
Then, when Rosy gets involved and is caught at a support rally for Gandhi, her father puts his foot down and sends her to England for the rest of her schooling. She is to live with her two aunts, her mother's sisters.
From the first, Aunt Ethyl is miserly and controlling. Aunt Louise, on the other hand, is soft and warm, excited to hear about Rosy's life and tries to make her as comfortable as possible. Even though Rosy's father had sent copious amounts of cash to pay for all of Rosy's needs, Aunt Ethyl insisted on buying her the very cheapest of dresses, choosing the wool and fleece that the dressmaker had used for children in an orphanage. And though Rosy's father insisted that he wanted his daughter sent to the best of schools, Aunt Ethyl enrolled her to study at "Miss Mumford's" where there were only two teachers and they did not even offer Latin! The one's stinginess amounts to near cruelty, as she scorns her sister and attempts to deprive her of any control over her finances. I literally couldn't not put the book down until I finished it, knowing that all would be right in the end. It is Rosy's presence and her own courage to say and do what she truly believes is right that gives Aunt Louise the support she needs to finally break free from her sister's suffocating control.
Shortly after Rosy arrives in England, her father writes that his wife is ill and requests that her daughter come home immediately. Rosy convinces Aunt Louise to come with her, and in a beautiful moment of freedom, once they are safely away from Aunt Ethyl and eating in the train's dining car, Aunt Louise ceremonially drops a liberal three lumps of sugar into her tea. We see Aunt Louise coming into her own, experiencing her life for the first time, absolutely drinking in the sights and sounds of the India she had so longed to see. The book ends with Aunt Louise finding a place in the world--working with Mrs. Nelson at her orphanage, Rosy and her parents happily reunited, and Aunt Ethyl has sent an intimidating telegram that she has booked a passage for India. Rosy closes the book, "I was startled but not worried. Aunt Ethyl would come with her coldness and her stinginess, but India would warm her against her will, and how could she be stingy when India's gifts would be all around her like a great bazaar."
I believe the two things I appreciate the most about this book is the realism of the tension between characters, and the admirable way that Rosy approaches her decisions. The conflict between father and daughter and between the two sisters is so easy to understand that I could instantly visualize the awkwardness and feel in my heart the arguments that the characters left unsaid. Because of her amazing descriptions and masterful painting of character, Gloria Whelan drew me into the story, and as I read I felt like I became each character. And because of that, when resolution came, it was all the more joyful and exciting. On the second point, Rosy makes many decisions throughout the book that happen to be small acts of amazing courage. One of them is when she saves the baby from being crippled. Another is when she decided to help nurse the cholera patients on the steamer to England, a very dangerous job since cholera is so contagious. And in England, she decided to try to help her loving aunt to make her own small acts of courage--like opening her own checking account, and ultimately booking a passage for India. And yet, through all of these decisions, she usually tries to understand everyone else's point of view. There's a wonderful reflective passage in the last chapter after Aunt Louise praises Rosy's courage.
Rosy thinks to herself, "I was not sure where my courage had brought me. I had saved Nadi, but I had been sent in disgrace to England, and now I was being summoned home and had no idea what I would find. Would I be sent to England every time I displeased my father and then brought home to please Mother? How did you separate yourself from others who wanted to make decisions for you? Some of them, like Aunt Ethyl, might just want to control you, but others, like Father, might know more than you did and only want what was best for you...But then, wasn't that what a conscience was for, and what if my conscience and Father's were different? When was I old enough and wise enough to listen to my own?"
These are really excellent questions for a 15 year old to be thinking about and answering honestly. In so many books, the young protagonist would simply assume that he/she was completely ready to make decisions on his own. But here, we see that Rosy understands that her father does, in fact, know more than she does. And she trusts that he wants her best. And she also understands that she will grow in wisdom as she gets older and will someday have to make decisions trusting her own conscience. She has already made some of those decisions--some of them with better consequences than others.
All the different elements of this book, from the intriguing story, to the fast-paced writing, to the conflict/resolution and the depth of characters make this a truly excellent and thought provoking book. You should definitely check it out if you're looking for some light summer reading!