Carnival of Children's Literature: Thanksgiving Edition
Reading Like a Teenage Girl

Sold: Patricia McCormick

Sold, by Patricia McCormick, was released just two and a half months ago, and yet it seems almost redundant to review it now, because it has already garnered so many laurels. Sold was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature and was a Publisher's Weekly best book of the year. It was also nominated for the Cybils Award for Young Adult Fiction. But I'm going to review it anyway, because I simply couldn't put it down.

Sold is verse novel told from the perspective of Lakshmi, a thirteen year old girl born in a small mountain village in Nepal. In a series of poems, ranging from a few lines to several pages each, Lakshmi shows us what her world is like. The early part of the book is about Lakshmi's life in the village, with her hard-working mother, Ama, her sickly baby brother, and her worthless (but pampered) stepfather. Despite grinding poverty, and various setbacks, Lakshmi is basically happy. Her greatest goal is to somehow work enough to provide her mother with a tin roof for their home. She is betrothed to a boy named Krishna, but both are to shy to even look openly at one another. Lakshmi is open and hopeful and innocent about the ways of the world. She is also taught by her mother's daily example that women should subjugate themselves to men, that women are less important, and there to serve. Here is an excerpt, in which Lakshmi's Ama gives her advice about growing up:

If your husband asks you to wash his feet, you must do as he says, then put a bit of the water in your mouth.

I ask Ama why. "Why," I say, "must women suffer so?"

"This has been our fate," she says.
"Simply to endure," she says, "is to triumph."

And Lakshmi, it turns out, will have much to endure. After a combination of lost crops due to flooding, and lost savings due to gambling, Lakshimi's stepfather sells her to a new "Auntie" for four hundred rupees, with the promise of more money for her family in the future if she is hardworking and obedient. They tell her that she is going to the city to work as a maid for a wealthy family. Lakshmi's mother gives her advice for her life as a maid, and both hope that she'll be able to return home during the national holiday.

To the reader, however, it's clear from the beginning that this innocent 13-year-old girl is not being sent to the city to be a maid. There are comments about her age and her appearance, and her lack of hips. But Lakshmi believes that if she works hard, she will be able to provide her mother with a tin roof, and she goes away willingly.

After a long and difficult journey, Lakshmi crosses into India, and finds herself in an unsympathetic city, sold again into the hands of the plump and perpetually angry Mumtaz, a brothel owner. There she endures suffering almost beyond what she can bear. Tiny kindnesses from the other girls, from a young boy living in the house, from a single client, are all that she has to hold onto. She is a child longing to be in school, learning, and playing, but she is also a jaded old woman before her time. She learns the brutal arithmetic of the brothel, by which she has to "work" to pay off the debt for what Mumtaz paid for her, while simultaneously having her debt added to for her room and board and medicines. It reminded me of the old song "I sold my soul to the company store."

The book does end on a note of hope for Lakshmi. But it's a disturbing and painful read along the way. What makes the book stand out is that despite the intensity of the subject matter, Patricia McCormick makes Sold enjoyable to read, too. I think that the verse format is key. Instead of reading a narrative about an exploited young girl in horrific circumstances, we learn Lakshmi's fate by reading a series of poems. Each poem offers a snapshot of some aspect of Lakshmi's life, but at just enough of a remove to make it bearable to read about. The truth is revealed gradually, as the young girl in the story comes to accept it herself, giving readers time to adjust.

It's also not all bleak. There are heroes in the story, though quiet ones. The son of one of the other women of the house befriends Lakshmi, teaching her to read English and Hindi. One days he brings her a gift of a yellow pencil. "It is shiny yellow and it smells of lead and rubber. And possibility." Lakshmi cries, for the first time, and muses:

"I have been beaten here,
locked away,
violated a hundred times
and a hundred times more.
I have been starved
and cheated,
and disgraced.

How odd it is that I am undone by the simple kindness
of a small boy with a yellow pencil."

I was undone by it, too, as I was by the whole story. It provided quite a contrast to my cozy Thanksgiving dinner, and the complaints that I make when my work causes me stress because I have to travel too much. In an author's note, Patricia McCormick says that "Each year, nearly 12,000 Nepali girls are sold by their families, intentionally or unwittingly, into a life of sexual slavery in the brothels of India." Ms. McCormick interviewed some of the survivors of this life, and notes how they are speaking out, "with great dignity", and working to help keep other girls from meeting the same fate. She wrote the book in their honor. I highly recommend it, for the lean yet heartbreaking prose, for the brave example of Lakshmi, and for the window into practices that people have to know about, if they are to be stopped.

Book: Sold
Author: Patricia McCormick
Publisher: Hyperion Books for Children
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Pages: 272
Age Range: 14 and up
Source of Book: Review copy from Hyperion
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© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.