Vanished, written by Sheela Chari, 324 pp, RL 4

First reviewed 9/12/11, Vanished by Sheela Chari was a revelation for me - a mystery with a child protagonist that felt entirely real and possible. Neela's path to uncovering the whereabouts of her stolen veena and the history behind it are fascinating, exciting and amazing. This rare book is a standout in so many ways picked for Al Roker's Book Club for Kids in July of 2012!

Sheela Chari's debut novel Vanished is as rare and priceless as the family heirloom that goes missing in the second chapter of the book. Not only does Chari manage the remarkable feat of writing an authentic mystery with a believable child character at the center of the story, but in Neela Krishnan she creates a real girl with a rich cultural heritage that she is learning to balance with her suburban American upbringing. After three years and almost six hundred books reviewed, I can count fewer than ten books that I have read that can be considered middle grade mysteries with a contemporary setting. And that is not for want to looking. The bottom line is, it is remarkably difficult to craft a realistic plot with centered around an actual mystery that can be uncovered, if not solved, by a child. With Vanished, Chari has done exactly that.

The prologue to Vanished tells the story of a foggy night and a train accident that takes the life of an American veena player and her East Indian husband on her way to a music festival in Chennai, India. Miraculously, her enormous stringed instrument survives the crash but disappears the next day. Chapter One begins some ten years later in Ms Reese's sixth grade class as the students are pushing back their desks and making room for Neela Krishnan to share her veena during the Instruments Around the World unit. Nervous beyond stage fright, Neela wonder why she ever volunteered to bring in her instrument and play for her classmates. Not only is Neela's veena from her grandmother's collection, sent to her all the way from India, but it is a unique instrument handmade by Guru and possibly very valuable, things she is sure her classmates have no interest in. But Neela is wrong about that. That very day, after being invited into a church to get out of the rain as she walks home from school, her enormous veena trailing behind her in its wheeled case, the instrument goes missing. Unwilling to accept the loss, especially after she learns about a possible curse that was put on her veena by its maker, Neela prods, digs, spies, eavesdrops, lies and does anything else a kid can do to get to the bottom of a mystery.

Chari does a fabulous job of creating a fully rounded character in Neela as well as the secondary characters in the story. Her writing is so visually descriptive that images of Neela and her life played throughout my mind like a movie as I read. My favorite trait is Neela's love of potato chips and Chari's descriptions of how the taste and crunch help her to ponder the many threads might that lead to the missing veena. It is also wonderful to watch as Neela grows as a musician over the course of the story. Neela, who has been taking lessons from Sudha Auntie, is lacking confidence in her playing, especially since her best friend Pavi, who also takes lessons with her, is so skilled. The arrival of her grandmother's veena invigorates her playing and she finds a renewed sense of interest when she plays. She even entrances her little brother Sree, who hides under a table and listens while she practices, learning to keep time with her playing. Sree is another great character. Instead of your typical annoying little brother type, Sree has a unique trait of his own - a fear of having his hair cut. On more than one occasion Neela is awakened by his shrieks from the bathroom (the floor of which is littered with lollipop bribes) as their mother tries to give his thick, curling hair a trim. There is a fabulous scene towards the middle of the book when, fed up with the noise, Neela kicks her mom out of the bathroom, puts a bowl over Sree's head and proceeds to trim his hair without a fuss. It turns out that Sree was scared that the scissors would cut his brain and having the bowl over his head makes him feel protected. It also turns out that Sree hates lollipops. Another great little detail. I also love the fact that Neela's parents are late wherever they go and they know this about themselves. While this results in Neela being late to school so many times that she finally gets detention, it also leads to an unexpected friendship and ally in her search for her missing veena.

Another superb thing that Chari does with Neela and the Krishnan family is give the reader a glimpse into what it is like to be a first generation American straddling two very different cultures. While Neela's parents want her to learn to play the veena and have taught her to speak Tamil, the Krishnans also allow their children to wear American clothes and assimilate into American culture in many ways. Neela's mother is very superstitious and frequently performs aartis to ward off bad luck and, while she does not share her mother's superstitions, Neela tolerates her mother's beliefs. As she explains to her classmate Matt (who, like Neela, is also chronically late) as they are riding a bus into downtown Boston to spy on a classmate, "My parents want me to be Indian and American. That's why they started me on the veena. Well, that's not exactly true. I was the one who wanted to learn the veena. But I think because I picked something completely Indian, my parents went along with it." Although Vanished is definitely a mystery, Chari's descriptive writing and plot points make it read like a read like a coming of age story by Wendy Mass or Donna Gephart, which are almost as hard to write as a well plotted mystery. Neela's best friend Pavi wears a bindi to please her mother, who is raising Pavi with more culturally traditional ideas about behavior and appearances and would be furious is she ever found out that Pavi was riding a bus with a boy. Knowing this, Neela goes on to tell Matt, when he asked if she is arranged to marry someone, "I'm not a child bride. . . My parents are actually cool about most things. But I don't think they've figured out about boys yet." It seems like Neela's parents, who are also chronically late, are figuring things out as they go as well.

I appreciate the way that Chari has created a character with an Indian American cultural background and presenting her in situations that, while not necessarily racist, allow her to respond thoughtfully to the stereotypical ideas and ignorance of other characters with different backgrounds. On top of this, Chari puts Neela in situations that would be challenging to most preteens, regardless of cultural background. Neela is faced with moral ambiguities, ideas of ownership and the kind of questions that kids face on a daily basis, regardless of cultural heritage and stolen instruments.  When mean girl Amanda accuses new girl Lynne of stealing the veena, Neela defends her saying that she knows Lynne didn't steal the instrument so now Amanda can, "stop hating her. And me." Neela goes on to tell Amanda that, while she may not hate her, she isn't exactly nice to Neela either. When Amanda turns back in her seat, fuming, Neela thinks to herself that she, "hadn't meant to lash out. But she did stand up for Lynne when Amanda was being hateful. Wasn't that the right thing to do?"

The mystery itself is well thought out and intriguing. Early on in the story Neela learns that there is a curse on her veena. Made by Guru for his wife, she cursed it when he was forced to sell it to pay bills. Part of the curse was that the veena would always return to the Chennai Music Palace. Thinking it might be safer in America, Neela's grandmother sends it to her when someone breaks into her home in Chennai in an attempt to steal the veena, thinking it might be safer in America. After bringing her veena to school and learning that Amanda's mother, a photographer for the magazine Boston Living, is interested in Neela's veena, as well as her new classmate Lynne who takes pictures of it and seems to be taking notes on it (as well as a mysterious Indian man with a ruby ring) Neela steps up her efforts to connect the dots and track down her missing instrument. From Lynne's notes Neela learns about the mysterious American veena player who dies in an accident at the start of the book. Her name was Veronica Wyvern and she may have  been the previous owner of Neela's veena. This is especially intriguing because a wyvern is another name for a dragon and Neela's veena has a decorative dragon on the peg box, not just the usual head, but the whole body. The climax of the book comes when, on a visit to their respective families in Chennai, Neela and Pavi sneak away and head to the Chennai Music Palace to get to the bottom of the mystery. And it is a pretty climactic ending. The bad guy who emerges turns out to be pretty menacing and Neela's life is endangered as she jumps a train to save her veena at the Chennai Central train station.

I've spent so much time talking about the various aspects of Vanished that I loved and very little time quoting Chari's writing, which is perfect. I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book and one that illustrates an aspect of Neela's personality that I didn't talk much about, her passion for and love of the veena. After being invited to dinner at the Krishnan's, Sudha Auntie is cajoled into playing the veena for the family. As Neela watches her teacher play, she is 

struck by something strange and lovely in her teacher's face, a kind of glow, as if she were lit from withing. How was it tha ther teacher, who normally looked like a dried-up fruit, could look almost . . . beautiful? Play for yourself and it will come beautifully. Her grandmother's words returned to Neela. . . Neela continued listening to her teacher, and she imagined herself in the future, as she always did. But instead of seeing just herself, she saw a circle of veena players like Sudha Auntie, Veronica Wyvern, and Parvati, widening that circle to let her in. She pictured their music billowing out, like an enormous knitted blanket, stretching and covering the entire world. The thought comforted her.

If Neela sees her playing as a knitted blanket, then Sheela Chari can see her wonderful book as giant, unfolding map that charts people, places, emotions, and music, drawing them together into a whole.

For more about Sheela Chari and Vanished, children's book author Uma Krishnaswami has a great interview with Chari. Also, at the end of  Vanished there is additional information about wyverns and veenas, with some great websites to check out, including the New England School of Carnatic Music. Just a click to the site will let you listen to the beautiful sounds of the veena! Below is a picture of E Gayathri.

Pictures of the Chennai Central Train Station


File:Tirumailai MRTS station Chennai (Madras).jpg

Popular posts from this blog

Fox + Chick: The Sleepover and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier

Be a Tree! by Maria Gianferrari illustrated by Felicita Sala

Reading Levels: A Quick Guide to Determining if a Book Is Right for Your Reader