Sold, by Patricia McCormick
Hyperion; September 2006; 288; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Girls ages 12+
Strengths: Compelling story; spare poetic writing; honest treatment of a difficult topic
Inevitably during awards season, the discussion is as much about books that didn’t get an award as about those who did. Everyone has a short list of favorites that they love and feel should have gotten additional recognition. Here’s one of those books. Sold was a National Book Award finalist, and if I were handing out awards, it would be at the top of my list for more kudos.
Lakshmi is a 13 year-old Nepali girl living in a small mountain village. Her life mostly revolves around the agrarian cycles of her home, like helping her mother and taking care of her pet goat. Although the family is poor, her life is rich with simple pleasures. When the monsoons come and wipe out her family’s rice plantings, her never-do-well stepfather declares that she must go to work to support the family. He negotiates with a glamorous stranger who says that she will take Lakshmi to work for a rich family in the city. What Lakshmi does not know is that her stepfather has just sold her into prostitution. After a long and confusing journey into India, her life descends into a nightmare from which there seems no escape. However, deep down inside her there is a spirit which refuses to be crushed, and she finds a way to endure and ultimately triumph over the situation she finds herself in.
This book is remarkable on many levels. First, there is the story which is meticulously researched, and which has the authenticity of voice to pull a reader right into the heart of Lakshmi’s experience. Then there is the writing, which accomplishes that rare thing: the kind of spareness and poetry that speaks as much in the silences as in the words. Subtle and nuanced, it finds grace in subject matter that could so easily descend into voyeuristic or maudlin melodrama. Thirdly, there is the character of Lakshmi herself, so vulnerable yet so strong. Patricia McCormick has invested her with such humanity that well-cared for readers can really understand her strength, resilience, and her drive to be a good person in the face of unbelievable cruelty. McCormick’s sensitive treatment of Lakshmi’s abuse focuses on her internal narrative, rather than a blow-by-blow recital, making palatable a truly horrific situation.
According to the end notes, nearly 12,000 Nepali girls are sold into sexual slavery in India, and nearly 500,000 children are trafficked in the sex trade globally every year. This is a world-wide problem that needs our attention, and Patricia McCormick has created a moving and lyrical call to arms for readers who may otherwise never hear about it.