7.01.2011

Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan, 209 pp, RL 4


I think that Gloria Whelan just might be the Frances Hodgson Burnett of the 20th and 21st centuries. The few books of hers that I have read, and she is a prolific author of over fifty books in a little over thirty years, capture the history and the hardships, the foreign locales and the endurance, bravery and strong sense of self that Burnett exhibited in her children's novels. In fact, in her preface to a new edition of Little Lord Fauntleroy, Polly Horvath, author of My 100 Adventures among other great books, says that Fauntleroy was the "Harry Potter of his time and Frances Hodgson Burnett was as celebrated for creating him as JK Rowling is for Potter." I wish Whelan's books received even half the attention that Rowling's do. I always finish one feeling uplifted and enriched by the historical, cultural and/or geographical aspects of her works.

With Small Acts of Amazing Courage Whelan returns to India, the setting for her National Book Award Winner Homeless Bird, but this time it is 1919 instead of present day and the main characters are the ruling British, not the Indians. The narrator of Small Acts of Amazing Courage, Rosalind James, is fifteen. Because of the death of her brother at boarding school in England shortly before her birth, her mother's weakened heart after the loss and her father's frequent absences as a Major fighting with the Gurkha Rifles in Turkey, Rosalind has a less than typical upbringing in a river town in southeastern India. Although she attends school with other British girls, she has been raised alongside Isha, the daughter of her ayah, or nursemaid, Amina.  Having just lost Edward, Rosalind's mother "could not bear for Amina to separated all day from her child," and insists that she bring her daughter to work. The girls teach each other their native languages, although Rosalind's mother warns her never to speak Hindi in front of her father or he will forbid her to play with Isha. At fifteen, Isha is already married, her husband Aziz has running stall in the bazaar. Rosalind and Isha love to visit the bazaar, even though Rosalind's mother has forbidden her to do so. On the days when they can sneak away to wander the aisles, they must first pass the rafts of beggars where they often see a man they have named the Cobra, who always arrived at the bazaar "with three crippled children in a cart. He placed them with their bowls at strategic locations in the bazaar, and then late in the day he would gather them up like so many dolls who had lost their stuffing and take them along with all they had earned for him." Rosalind knows that there are people who will bend the soft bones of infants, leaving them misshapen and more pitiful than the rest of the beggars, and she and Isha suspect the Cobra of doing this, which sets off a tumultuous chain of events. 

A bit of a Cinderella story with many twists, turns and reversals, Small Acts of Amazing Courage is filled with small acts of amazing courage. Having been born and raised in India and with Indians, Rosalind does not see or partake of the societal strictures that bind and support the British belief in their superiority to the Indian people. She is intrigued by Gandhi and the Congress Party, meetings of which are sometimes held at Aziz's house. When she meets the young Max Nelson, a soldier serving under Major James and also the son of a forward thinking woman who has established an orphanage for Indian children, they share their passion for history and discuss freedom for India. Rosalind's first small act of courage comes when she spends her Christmas shilling, a gift from her Aunt Louise in England (her Aunt Ethyl, with whom Louise lives, is a cheerless, stingy tyrant who sends Rosalind "flannel bellybands") to buy a baby. Upon her father's return from Turkey, her mother's lax housekeeping comes under scrutiny and redundancies are eliminated, corners are cut. When Jetha, an elderly sweeper for the James', is fired he sells his infant grandson to the Cobra. Isha learns of this and pleads with Rosalind to take her shilling and go to the bazaar alone to rescue the baby, putting herself in great danger. Rosalind secrets the baby, whom she names Nadi, the Hindi word for river, into her brother's room, which remains untouched since his death. When she is found out her father threatens to send her to England, despite her mother's wishes. But, when she sneaks out with Max Nelson to hear Gandhi speak and is caught in the uproar, she is sent to live with her aunts.

The voyage to England and Rosalind's time with her aunts are almost a different story altogether, much like the life of Rachel Sheridan in the superb Listening for Lions, which is set in Africa and England in 1919. There is the wonderful Mrs Blodget, who had been in India for many years working for a charitable organization and is returning to England after the death of her husband William, is hired to be Rosalind's escort on their three week ocean voyage. Mrs Blodget is frequently encouraged by the spirit of William to think of those less fortunate than her, which makes for some humorous and dangerous situations. Life in England with her very different aunts sets up a parallel between the British rule of India and Ethyl's tight fisted rule over Louise. However, even in England the restlessness in India is ever present and calling to Rosalind. When she learns that her oppressed Aunt Louise's dearest wish is to see India before she dies, the story takes a turn again. 

As a narrator, Rosalind shares insights that reveal her introspective nature as well as her strong sense of self. One of my favorite passages illustrating these qualities comes at the end of the book as she is returning to India with her Aunt Louise, 

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 my 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. I wished that, like Mrs Blodget, I had William with me to tell me what to do. 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?

Children of the Raj by Vyvyen Brendon: Book CoverThe story of India's struggle for independence makes a vivid backdrop for Rosalind's growing sense of self and awareness of the ways in which nations and humans can assert control (or much much more) over one another.  A short book with big ideas, Small Acts of Amazing Courage is also surprisingly entertaining story, thanks to Whelan's diverse range of characters. Whelan easily could have made this book twice as long, but then she may have alienated many younger readers who may know nothing about India and Britain's three hundred years of rule there, not to mention Gandhi and his pursuit of non-violence in helping his countrymen to achieve the goal of independence. In her author's note, Whelan shares some historical background as well as the two things that came together to make her want to write this book. She writes that the "first thing is that during the years of struggle in the civil rights movement I participated in the nonviolent marches inspired by Dr Martin Luther King Jr., who was a great admirer of Gandhi. The second thing was a wonderful book by Vyvyen Brendon, Children of the Raj. It tells the story of the children of the British civil servants and army officers stationed in India." The plight of these children who were born in India but sent to England at a very young age and their feelings of displacement once they reached there struck a chord with her as she had just left a part of the country she loved.

On a final note, the lovely cover illustration for Small Acts of Amazing Courage is by Lizzy Bromley, the genius behind the covers of Laurie Halse Anderson's brilliant Chains and the sequel, Forge.


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